Laguna del Desierto incident

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Coordinates: 49°02′13″S 72°51′49″W / 49.03694°S 72.86361°W / -49.03694; -72.86361

Laguna del Desierto incident
File 20051012101753.jpg
The Argentine magazine Gente y la Actualidad called the firefight a battle. In the background, the shelter built by the Chilean Carabineros
Date 6 November 1965
Location Laguna del Desierto
49°02′13″S 72°51′49″W / 49.03694°S 72.86361°W / -49.03694; -72.86361

Status quo ante bellum

  • In 1994 an international tribunal awarded almost the whole disputed area to Argentina.
Argentine Gendarmerie Carabineros de Chile
40-90 Gendarmes 4 Carabineros
Casualties and losses
1 Lieutenant killed
1 Sergeant injured
2 captured

The Laguna del Desierto incident, in Argentina called also Battle of Laguna del Desierto, occurred between four Chilean Carabineros and between 40 and 90 members of the Argentine Gendarmerie and took place in zone south of O'Higgins/San Martín Lake on 6 November 1965, resulting in one lieutenant killed and a sergeant injured, both members of Carabineros, creating a tense atmosphere between Chile and Argentina.

Historical background[edit]

The British award of 1903[1] considered the demands of Chile and Argentina as irreconcilable and previous authorization of both governments draw a boundary between the extreme pretentions of the litigants. In the Laguna del Desierto region, the tribunal set the hito 62 (cornerstone) at the O'Higgins/San Martin Lake and draw the boundary from there to mount Fitz Roy on the Martínez de Rozas Range awarding Chile the complete valley of Laguna del Desierto.

In 1946 an aerial reconnaissance of the United States Air Force, ordered by the Chilean government, revealed that the lake emptied to the Atlantic side. Chile and Argentina have to redraw its maps.

Argentine internal situation[edit]

The initially organized labour support for 1963 elected Argentine President Arturo Illia turned to antagonism during 1964, as secret plans for Perón's return from exile took shape. Accordingly, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) leader José Alonso called a general strike in May, and became a vocal opponent of the president. This antagonism intensified after Perón's failed attempt to return in December, and during 1965, CGT leaders began publicly hinting at support for a coup.[2]

The triumph of the Peronists party in the March 1965 elections shook the Argentine Armed Forces, both among internal military factions linked to the Peronist movement, and in particular among the large section of the army which remained strongly anti-Peronist. In addition, a campaign against the government was also being carried out by important parts of the media, notably Primera Plana and Confirmado, the nation's leading newsmagazines. Seizing on minimally relevant events such as the President's refusal to support Operation Power Pack (Lyndon Johnson's April 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic), Illia was nicknamed "the turtle" in both editorials and caricatures, and his rule was vaguely referred to as "slow," "dim-witted" and "lacking energy and decision," encouraging the military to take power and weakening the government even more; Confirmado went further, publicly exhorting the public to support a coup and publishing a (non-scientific) opinion poll touting public support for the illegal measure.[2]

The incident[edit]

The map shows the dispute between Chile & Argentina.

On 4 October 1965, the Chilean settler Domingo Sepúlveda was instructed by Argentine gendarmes to regularize his settlement by the Argentine authorities in Río Gallegos. On 9 October Sepúlveda went to the Chilean Police station at the O'Higgins/San Martín Lake to denounce the Argentine requirement. On 17 October Carabineros sent a platoon to the zone and built an outpost in the property of Juana Sepúlveda and later a six-man reconnaissance patrol was sent to a shelter 8 km farther south. They were major Miguel Torres Fernández, lieutenant Hernán Merino Correa, sergeant Miguel Manríquez, the lance-corporal Víctor Meza Durán and the Carabineros Julio Soto Jiménez and José Villagrán Garrido.[3]

On 30 October, Eduardo Frei Montalva and Arturo Illia, presidents of Chile and Argentina, met in Mendoza, Argentina and agreed to revert to the status quo before the Argentine requirement: withdraw the forces, no further buildings for Carabineros or Gendarmerie in the zone.

On the Argentine side, on 1 November the operation Laguna del Desierto under the command of Osiris Villegas[4] and Julio Rodolfo Alsogaray, chief of the V Division of the Argentine Army and Director of the Argentine Gendarmerie respectively, brought in several DC-3 flights the Gendarmerie Squadron "Buenos Aires" from El Palomar Airport to the zone and later, on 3 November, the Gendarmerie Squadron 43 was ordered from Río Turbio to meet the "Buenos Aires" in the same area. They were accompanied by journalists and photographers of the magazine Gente y la Actualidad.[5][6]

On 6 November at 14:00 Major Torres received the order to return to the police station. Two Carabineros, Soto and Villagrán, were ordered to bring the horses and the other four men prepared their return. At 16:40 they were surrounded by approximately 90 Argentine Gendarmes. As the Chileans noted the encirclement and called to negotiate, Argentine forces shot dead Lieutenant Hernán Merino and injured Sergeant Miguel Manríquez.

Photographs published in Argentine magazine Gente y la Actualidad in 1965
Argentine forces deployed into the area to establish secure and covert positions overlooking the killing zone. 
Lieutenant Hernán Merino Correa lies mortally wounded in the woods. 
Sergeant Manríquez lies seriously injured. In the background, an Argentine gendarm with a handgun. 
Chilean Mayor Miguel Torres (right) and Carabinero Víctor Meza Durán (left) in custody of the Argentine Gendarmerie. 

Major Torres, Manríquez and Meza were captured and brought, along with Merino's body, to the barracks of Regimiento N° 181 de Combate of the Argentine Army in Río Gallegos. On 9 November they were freed and flew to Chile with an envoy of Presidente Frei, Juan Hamilton (then sub-secretary in the Ministry of the Interior and Public Security (Chile)).

The Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Gabriel Valdés, on 10 November 1965 called the killing of Merino "an unprecedented and unexcusable act in the history of our boundary disputes."[7]


In 1994 an international tribunal awarded almost the whole zone to Argentina. After a refused appeal, in 1995 Chile accepted the award.

Monument to the members of Carabineros de Chile died fulfilling his duty.
Today Hernán Merino is honored in Chile, and specially in Carabineros de Chile institution.

Lieutenant Hernán Merino Correa became one of the best-known and emblematic Carabinero in Chile and the statements about him reveal that the image of the ideal Carabinero, one who embodies heroism, devotion to homeland and self-sacrifice, (even to the point of dying) has been successfully maintained.[8] His body was brought to Santiago where he was accorded a state funeral and he was interred under the monument to the glories of Carabineros de Chile. The Escuela de Fronteras of Carabineros bears his name, as many other schools and streets in Chile.[9]

Under the planning of the Commander of the First Division of the Army, General Julio Alsogaray, a military coup against Argentine president Illia took place on June 28, 1966. General Alsogaray presented himself in Illia's office that day, at 5:00 a.m, and 'invited' him to resign his post.[10] Illia refused to do so at first, citing his role as Commander-in-Chief, but at 7:20, after seeing his office invaded by military officers and policemen with grenade launchers, he was forced step down. The next day, General Juan Carlos Onganía became the new Argentine President.

Both countries gave different accounts of the incident, each accusing the other of initiating the attack. Argentine sources denied the number of 90 members of Gendarmes, but the Argentine government never investigated the killing of the Chilean officer.

Michel Morris stated that Argentina had used threats and force to pursue its claims against Chile and Great Britain and that some of the hostile acts or armed incidents appear to have been caused by zealous local commanders.[11] Gino Bianchetti Andrade thinks that the Argentine Gendarmerie made in this case a deliberated and planned use of violence in order to obtain control of the zone and political preponderance of the force.[12]

American historian William Sater states:

Happily for Chile, the recently elected reformist Frei proved less vulnerable to Chilean jingoes; Illía did not enjoy such good fortune: his earlier attempt to reach some accommodation with the Peronists, including permitting Isabel Perón to visit Argentina, had eroded his regime's legitimacy. The border dispute provided a superb opportunity for the somewhat discredited Argentine armed forces to refurbish their tattered image as the protector of the motherland. Indeed, already displeased with Illía's political appointments, the military adroitly orchestrated a media campaign to humiliate the president and contravene his policies. Eventually, General Onganía used Illía's supposed craven behavior vis-à-vis Santiago, as the excuse to overthrow the Radical president. Happily the turmoil remained confined to Argentina. The more restrained elements managed to calm the rhetoric: Chile and Argentina eventually agreed to resolve the Laguna del Desierto through negotiation. ...
... [Chilean historian Valenzuela] discovered maps that plainly demonstrated that the Chileans had violated Argentine territory, not the other way around. This unpleasant truth did not prevent the Chilean diplomats from arguing that their nation owned the disputed territory or the senate from accusing Frei of being a vendepatria [Spanish for traitor].[13]

See also[edit]

The Chilean flag captured in the incident is now located in the Historic Museum of Carabineros of Chile in Santiago, after being handed back by the Argentine Government in 2017


  1. ^ "The Cordillera of the Andes Boundary Case (Argentina, Chile)" (PDF). 20 November 1902. Retrieved 23 February 2018. 
  2. ^ a b Potash, Robert.The Army and Politics in Argentina. Stanford University Press, 1996.
  3. ^ Speeches of Senators (appointed) Fernando Cordero Rusque and of (elected) Rodolfo Stange (both ex-Director General of Carabineros de Chile) in Chilean Congress on 17 November 1999 for the 34 Anniversary of the death of Lieutenant Hernán Merino Correa. [1], retrieved on 19 June 2013
  4. ^ General Villegas was the first chief negotiator of the Argentine delegation at the Vatican during the Papal mediation in the Beagle conflict and during the Falklands War called to invade Chile.
  5. ^ Letters to director, in Argentine newspaper La Nación, [2]
  6. ^ Blog page
  7. ^ Cited in
  8. ^ John Bailey; Lucía Dammert (2006). Public Security And Police Reform in the Americas. University of Pittsburgh Pre. ISBN 978-0-8229-7294-5. Retrieved 19 June 2013. 
  9. ^ Article Hernán Merino Correa, in El Mercurio on 19 June 2013
  10. ^ Todo Argentina: Presidencia de Illia
  11. ^ Michael A. Morris (1989). The Strait of Magellan. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7923-0181-3. Retrieved 20 June 2013. 
  12. ^ Gino Bianchetti Andrade, Capitán de Corbeta, Metodología de analisís de crisis, Laguna del Desierto: La Crisis de 1965
  13. ^ Bookreview of William Sater in Hispanic American Historical Review 81.2 (2001) 431-432 for Enigma de la Laguna del Desierto: Una memoria diplomática. By Mario Valenzuela Lafurcade. Colección Sin Norte. Santiago: LOM Ediciones, 1999. Maps. Photographs. Appendixes. 255 pp. Paper. See [3], retrieved on 20 June 2013

External links[edit]

  • Chilean newspaper El Mercurio, article serie Laguna del Desierto, retrieved on 19 June 2013
  • Prof. R. Borgel, La Laguna del Desierto y su proyección geográfica en los problemas de límites con Argentina, Revista de Geografía Norte Grande,18: 19-26 (1991)