Battle for sunken treasure intensifies as U.S. salvagers vow to defy Colombian government

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

A group of American explorers is upping the ante in a decades-long battle over one of the world’s most legendary sea treasures.

Washington-based salvage company Sea Search Armada recently announced plans to launch a high-tech expedition off Colombia’s Caribbean coast to start hauling up to $4 billion worth of sunken booty from the San José, a fabled Spanish galleon that went down in battle in 1708.

But those treasure-hunting plans are likely to get torpedoed by the Colombian government, which has already laid claim to the same ship and its 200 tons of gold, silver, emeralds and valuable brass cannons.


The fight over the sunken treasure is the latest battle in a 500-year-old effort to extract riches from Latin America. But times have changed since the era of colonial plunder, and Colombia has made it clear that it intends to fight for what it considers to be its “patrimony.”

American treasure hunters fear they could be met with resistance on the high seas, despite their argument that the Colombian Supreme Court has backed their claim to some of the ship's gold.

“If the [Colombian] navy is ordered to intercept us, there is not much we can do against that many guns,” Jack Harbeston, the managing director for the salvage company, which claims to have 100 investors from 16 different countries, told the Miami Herald. “But I can’t imagine any government directly opposing the highest levels of the judicial branch.”

Sea Search Armada and the Colombian government have been at loggerheads for decades over the San José, described as “the holy grail” of shipwrecks.

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

The U.S. salvage company claims it found the ship in 1981, just a few miles from Colombia's touristy city of Cartagena. It reported its findings to the government of Colombia, but salvage work never began as the claim to the ship's treasure got mired in legal disputes.


Then, last December, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced the discovery of the same shipwreck by a team of local and international experts who conducted a separate and more recent search that did not include Sea Search Armada. In an address to the nation, Santos provided pictures of the sunken ship’s cannons and said that the salvaged material would be hauled out of the sea and displayed in a national museum.

“The patrimony we have found belongs to all Colombians and protecting it is a national goal,” the president said.


Sea Search Armada cried foul. The U.S. firm cited its original 1982 report as proof that they found the galleon first. The company says it has a ruling from Colombia’s Supreme Court that entitles it to 50% of what is taken off the ship, except for items that are considered Colombia's cultural patrimony.

But now Colombia says the U.S. firm never really found the San Jose, or at least provided them with the wrong coordinates. Colombia’s Ministry of Culture penned a letter to Sea Search Armada in March where it challenged the company to find the ship at the coordinates it had provided back in 1981.  The letter said that if SSA can find anything there they are welcome to their half.


“If there is no shipwreck on the coordinates you referred to, we will terminate this matter,” the Ministry of Culture said in its letter.

The company claims that its 1981 report identified the ship's location within “the immediate vicinity” of several coordinates, as was the custom for locating wrecks back then. It has asked the Colombian government to take them to the San Jose’s site to determine whether it is in the same area.


But Colombia is not having it. The government says it can't disclose the exact location of the ship they found to avoid raids from treasure hunters.

Meanwhile, Spain is also eyeing the long lost ship. It argues that under international protocols the wrecked ship belongs to the nation whose flag it flew. Spain is in talks with the Colombian government and has expressed interest in displaying its items in a museum.


The San José was part of an imperial Spanish fleet that was traveling from Panama to Cartagena after being loaded with gold, silver and emeralds from Peruvian mines. The fleet was attacked just 30 nautical miles from Cartagena by an English captain who hoped to steal its 200 ton load. But the ship sank in an explosion before it could be boarded by the English privateers.  According to historical records, only eleven of its crew survived the attack, while almost 500 people went down with the ship.

Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.

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