With the Brazilian army marching on Asunción, preceded by its fearsome reputation, the rich families of the Paraguayan capital began to panic. Fortunes were deposited at the French and U.S. embassies. Chests of Spanish gold coins were bricked up in the walls of mansions or stashed under floorboards. Fleeing by train, the women disembarked briefly at stations along the route, digging with their hands in the scrub and burying their jewels and trinkets. By the end of the brutal, protracted war, few survived to recover these possessions.
Or so the legend goes.
For 140 years, Paraguayans have searched for plata yvyguy—buried treasure—that was lost by their ancestors during the War of the Triple Alliance, which raged from 1864 to 1870 and remains the bloodiest war in South American history. Few outside of the region remember the conflict, and the victorious allies of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay rarely revisit their role in a struggle in which their enemy, tiny Paraguay, lost an estimated 60 percent of its population, including 90 percent of its male population. But in Paraguay, the shadow of La Guerra Grande—the Great War—looms large even today.
The steam railroad system on which people fled the fighting is now in ruins, a reminder of a hopeful time in the country’s history as well as its current woes. On an overcast June day, in the middle of one of the country’s coldest winters on record, I set out with a photographer to follow the train tracks, retracing the desperate flight of the Asunceños and meeting the people who continue to hunt for their treasure today.
The country’s many ills are seen as stemming from a single catastrophic defeat
In 1855, Francisco Solano Lopez, the 27-year-old son of the Paraguayan president, returned from a two-year trip to Europe with an Irish mistress, a fascination with Napoleon, and a squadron of British railroad engineers in tow. Two years later, he was president, and determined to convert his young nation of under half a million inhabitants into a regional power. He upgraded the military, promoted national industry, and built one of South America’s first railroads, linking the rich yerba mate plantations of the interior to the port at Asunción.
After independence from Spain in 1811, Paraguay had seemed at risk of being swallowed up by its larger neighbors, Argentina and Brazil. But by the 1860s, it had become a middling power and a cohesive state with a national identity strengthened by the use of Guarani, the widely spoken indigenous language. However, Lopez’s bold nation building aroused the suspicion of its neighbors, and in 1864, the country entered into a bitter and unwinnable six-year struggle against the combined forces of Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. By its end, Paraguay had lost over a quarter of its territory and paid a scarcely believable human cost.
“Make no mistake about it, this was a war of extermination,” says famed national poet Ramiro Dominguez in his university office in Villarrica, a city in the agricultural heartland of the country. “All that was left to rebuild the country was women, children, and invalids. Ever since, a sense of injustice has entered the collective imagination in Paraguay.”
The War of the Triple Alliance is the central tragedy of Paraguayan history. Nationalists venerate Lopez as a national savior; liberals vilify him as a stubborn warmonger. But one element of the tale remains remarkably consistent across the political spectrum: before the war, a golden age of nation-builders set the landlocked country on the path to becoming a regional power. Today, the country’s many ills are seen as stemming from that single catastrophic defeat.