IN March, 1928, the United States Government, acceding to requests from the Governments of Honduras and Guatemala to assist them in a renewed endeavor to settle their long-standing boundary dispute, appointed Roy T. Davis, United States Minister to Costa Rica, to represent the State Department on a mixed commission which was to study the situation on the ground and, if possible, lay out a tentative boundary. The commission held a series of meetings at Cuyamel during March and April from which nothing definite resulted because both the Guatemalan and Honduran delegates had definite instructions as to the minimum claims of their governments and no compromise of even a tentative nature was possible. The State Department, therefore, suggested that the matter should be submitted for arbitration to the Central American tribunal. Guatemala accepted the proposal but Honduras refused to consider it, giving as her reason a number of technical considerations, chief of which was that there was no adequate panel of judges available to sit on such a question, and asserting her willingness to submit the case to the President of the United States or the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for arbitration. The State Department in reply insisted that the question could and should be arbitrated by the tribunal which had been created for just such a purpose and that the contention of Honduras that there was no adequate panel of judges was baseless. Honduras repeated her refusal and there the matter stands with little immediate prospect of further action.

The Guatemala-Honduras boundary dispute is one of the most important of the many (involving every one of the Latin-American republics) that arose when Spanish rule was overthrown and it became necessary to determine the jurisdiction of the newly-established republics. In general, other major boundary disputes in Latin-America, whether settled or unsettled at the present time, involve regions of undeveloped and actually little-known resources, with little or no white population and no immediate prospects of extensive colonization. The Guatemala-Honduras dispute, however, deals with a region of considerable population, important transportation lines, and rich agricultural resources that are now undergoing rapid development.

Guatemala and Honduras, as states of the Central American Federation, which took the place of the Captain-Generalcy of Guatemala after the revolution and as independent republics after the dissolution of the Federation, were formed from the provinces or dioceses of Guatemala and Honduras of the Captain-Generalcy. No precise delimitation of these two states was made under the Federation. After its dissolution Guatemala and Honduras signed a treaty on July 19, 1845, which provided that "the states of Honduras and Guatemala recognize as their common boundary that laid down for the diocese of each in the Royal Ordinance of Intendentes of 1786;" but that ordinance did not define the boundaries of these dioceses. Negotiations for the demarcation of the boundary under this treaty failed and another was signed on March 1, 1895, which provided for a mixed commission to make a study of the whole problem and present data upon which the two governments could base their final studies. The convention was to continue in effect for ten years. Later commissions met in 1908, 1909, and 1910. Cerro Brujo and Cerro Obscuro were established as points on the common boundary and the line of actual possession from Cerro Obscuro to Coyoles determined in detail. A third treaty was signed in 1914. Its terms were approximately the same as those of the 1895 treaty except that it provided that the dispute should be submitted to the President of the United States for arbitration in case the disputants themselves should be unable to arrive at an agreement.

The two governments finding themselves again unable to come to any agreement asked the President of the United States to act as mediator between them, and, on May 20, 1918, commissions from both countries met in Washington with the Secretary of State. Each presented documents and maps to prove its maximum claims (see map). The Guatemalan commission based its claim to the River Uluá-Gulf of Fonseca line on a royal cédula of September 8, 1563, which thus described the eastern boundary of the province of Guatemala. The Honduran commission presented a cédula of 1564 which it interpreted as repealing the 1563 cédula but which the Guatemala commission interpreted as verifying it. The Honduran commission based its maximum claim not on any royal decree, since it claimed that the only decree that had ever expressly described the boundaries of either province (that of 1563) had never been put into effect and had been repealed by the 1564 cédula, but on a series of documents and maps purporting to prove that Honduras, previous to and at the time of the revolution of 1821, was in possession of not only the territory claimed at the Washington conference but of a much larger area reaching to Yucatán and including what is now British Honduras.

Each commission presented also a minimum claim as a basis for compromise and without waiving its maximum claims. Both accepted Cerro Obscuro and Cerro Brujo as points on the common boundary although there was some slight disagreement as to the actual line between these two points. From Cerro Obscuro to the Gulf of Honduras, Guatemala claimed all of the drainage basin of the Motagua River and insisted that the boundary should follow the ranges of mountains that form the divide between the Motagua and the rivers draining to the east. The Honduran commission insisted that the boundary should follow the line of division between actual Honduran and Guatemalan settlement and jurisdiction as traced from Cerro Obscuro to Coyoles by the mixed commissions acting under the 1895 treaty. The Honduran commission claimed that this line was official since it had been determined by commissions acting under the authority of their respective governments; Guatemala claimed that it had only the status of a recommendation and had been repudiated by the Guatemalan government. From Coyoles the line claimed by Honduras ran to the Managua River, down that river to the Motagua, and down the Motagua to the sea.

After the evidence presented by both countries had been studied it was evident to the State Department that more precise information on the topography and resources of the disputed region and the present interests of the two countries therein was needed before a compromise could be suggested. A survey under the auspices of the State Department was proposed and agreed to by both governments; but by that time (March 1919) it was decided that there would not be time to carry out a topographic survey before the rainy season. Feeling, meanwhile, was running high in both countries and hostilities seemed imminent. It was decided, therefore, to undertake the economic survey and at the request of the State Department this survey was carried out under the supervision of the American Geographical Society of New York during May and June 1919.

In general the report of the Economic Survey was favorable to Guatemalan claims as far as actual jurisdiction at the time of the survey is concerned. Although a number of fairly important towns in what may be called the Copan region were found to be under Honduran jurisdiction, these were cited in the report as exceptions only to the general rule of Guatemalan jurisdiction throughout the disputed zone, except for the banana plantations and railway right-of-way on the lower Motagua held by the Cuyamel Fruit Company under concessions from Honduras. Even there it was found that, for eight miles, the Cuyamel Railway ran over lands granted by Guatemala to others than the Cuyamel Fruit Company while, of the proposed 36-mile extension to this railway, 22 miles would also be on Guatemalan land grants. Of the 4615 square miles studied by the Economic Survey actual conflicts (that is, concessions granted by both Guatemala and Honduras) totalled not more than 178 square miles and 30 to 46 miles of railway right-of-way.

At the Cuyamel conferences of March and April 1928 the actual disputed area was reduced to about one-third that under consideration at the Washington conferences of 1918 and 1919, Honduras having signified her willingness to accept as her boundary with Guatemala (except for a small section in the neighborhood of the Cerro Brujo-Cerro Obscuro line) the mountain barrier demanded by Guatemala as far as the sources of the Chachagualía River. Thence the boundary proposed by Honduras would run down this river to its mouth in the Motagua and down the Motagua to the sea. This would preserve to Honduras the concessions and railway right-of-way already granted by Honduras to the Cuyamel Fruit Company and the section through which that company now proposes to extend its railway.

Guatemala persisted in her claim to the whole of the Motagua valley. The proposed boundary line as drawn on Guatemalan maps would include the sea coast towns of Cuyamel and Omoa now held by Honduras; but it would seem that Guatemala recognizes the right of Honduras to these towns since in the Guatemalan reports of the Cuyamel conference, the town of Cuyamel is referred to as Honduran.

Previous to the Cuyamel conference one of the strongest arguments of Guatemala against the demand of Honduras for the Motagua River as the boundary was that the Guatemala Railway, the chief transportation line of the country, ran, as far as the town of Quebradas, through territory that would thus be Honduran. Honduras seems now to have recognized this. Guatemala still, however, disputes the rights of Honduras to her present claim, quite aside from the historic Guatemalan claim to the River Uluá-Gulf of Fonseca line, on the ground that, until Guatemala had granted banana concessions in the Motagua valley to the United Fruit Company and thus had begun the enormous development in the banana industry of the region in the last few years, Honduras displayed no interest in the region and even on her own official maps showed the boundary as following the mountains. Guatemala claims that when the Cuyamel Fruit Company first sought concessions in the area of its present development the request was addressed to the Guatemalan Government and it was only after refusal on the part of Guatemala that the company began negotiations with Honduras. Meanwhile Guatemala has stopped with soldiers further construction on the Cuyamel Railway.

The gravity of the whole situation has been greatly lessened by the reduction of Honduran claims to their present limited area. When the question is presented for arbitration much time will again be spent in the presentation and defense of the maximum claims of each country; but the final decision will turn upon modern occupation and development rather than upon historic documents, and will draw a boundary which will be least prejudicial to the welfare of both countries and at the same time satisfy the national honor of each.

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  • RAYE R. PLATT, Head of the Department of Hispanic-American Research of the American Geographical Society.
  • More By Raye R. Platt