Colombia has billions in sunken treasure off its coast, but ownership is still disputed
BOGOTA, Colombiaâ"Sitting at the bottom of the ocean, just off Colombiaâs coast, is one of the Western Hemisphereâs richest treasures: a Spanish galleon packed with billions of dollars worth of New World gold, silver and emeralds.
The fight over who will profit from the San Jose shipwreck and its precious cargo â" thought to be worth between $4 billion and $17 billion â" has dragged on for almost four decades during legal challenges and allegations of back-stabbing, international espionage and unbridled greed.
On Monday, barring a last-minute court ruling or additional delays, the Colombian government will announce the name of the company or companies eligible to recover the vessel â" and win the right to a significant portion of the San Joseâs riches.
And while the announcement might finally bring the storied ship to the surface after 310 years, the fight over its treasure is far from over.
The latest chapter in the San Jose saga began in 2015, when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that a team of international researchers and the Colombian Navy had found the âHoly Grailâ of shipwrecks a few miles from the coastal city of Cartagena. He said the discovery of the San Jose, sunk by the British in 1708, had âenormous archaeological value for Colombia and all of humanityâ and said it would be preserved and protected in a specially built museum.
There was just one cloud over the celebration. Sea Search Armada, a salvage company from Bellevue, Wash., said it had discovered the wreck in 1982 and had, as required by law, provided the coordinates to the Colombian government at the time.
From the beginning, SSA was forced to defend its claim from multiple competing interests. And in 2007 Colombiaâs Supreme Court ruled that the company was entitled to half of a ll the treasure found at the coordinates it had provided â" as long as it wasnât considered ânational patrimony,â such as religious artwork or one-of-a-kind artifacts.
For SSA, that ruling is binding and conclusive.
âWe have the ownership rights par excellence,â Danilo Devis, the companyâs longtime lawyer, said last week. âThere is no authority higher than the Supreme Court, except God.â
And yet the government disagrees.
The Santos administration contends that it found the shipwreck in 2015 independently of SSAâs research, working with international investigators and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In addition, it says the San Jose wasnât at the coordinates SSA provided 36 years ago â" before GPS made underwater mapping a precise science.
âThe Colombian government did not use any information that it already had on hand for this new finding,â the Ministry of Culture said in an email. âWe can confirm that the (new) di scovery is not at the coordinates provided by SSA in 1982. Once again, the information that SSA is providing is designed to confuse the public.â
The salvage company, however, says itâs the government trying to muddy the waters. Because of the technological limits of the time, SSA reported the wreck was âin the immediate vicinityâ of a spot 21.5 miles west of the Baru Peninsula. In 2017, it offered to limit its legal claim to an area 36 nautical miles around the coordinates it provided and asked the government for a joint visit to the site to settle the claim.
The administration rejected the offer and said that the only verification it was willing to accept was the exact coordinates provided by SSA.
âThe only thing in which the government and SSA have agreed upon, for 35 years, is that there is no shipwreck in the precise coordinates indicated in the report of 1982,â Devis wrote in a legal brie f. âTherefore, it does not make sense to verify some coordinates in which with absolute certainty it is known that there is nothing.â
Adding to the intrigue is how the government says it found the San Jose.
In radio interviews shortly after the 2015 announcement, Santos said the breakthrough came thanks to a white-bearded foreigner âwho looked like Hemingwayâ and approached him at an embassy reception. The president said the man had been studying the San Jose for 38 years and had created a treasure map based on âpreviously unknownâ information, including wind patterns.
âHeâs not a treasure hunter; heâs not after the money,â Santos said of the man. âHe has an affinity for history, archaeology and culture.â
Three years later, Culture Minister Mariana Garces told local radio that the mystery manâs name was Roger Dooley, a renowned underwater archaeologist.
The revelation sent shock waves through SSA.
Jack Harbeston, one of t he founders of SSA, said Dooley had worked with IOTA Partners, a financier of SSA, from 2000 to 2003, and would have had access to the companyâs unsecured digital files, including maps and detailed research about the San Jose.
While SSA spent two years and $11 million to find the site of the wreck in the 1980s, the governmentâs team â" advised by Dooley â" ârediscoveredâ the site within weeks of launching their expedition, SSA said.
âHow did Roger Dooley find it so fast?â said Devis, the lawyer. âBecause they had our coordinates and the information they had stolen from us, so they were able to find the shipwreck in less than two months.â
In an email sent through a representative, Dooley called the allegations âabsurd and irresponsible.â
Dooley said his research into the shipwreck was done in Spain and the United States before 2000 â" before he had contact with Harbestonâs team. âDiscovering the San Jose was the result of an extensiv e and complex investigative process that relied on multiple factors and sources of information that were exhaustively analyzed,â he wrote.
And while he worked as a field archaeologist with IOTA Partners on the Mariana Islands, âSSA had absolutely nothing to do with that contract.â
While Santos said that Dooley was ânot a treasure hunter,â he very well may reap the benefit of his treasure map.
In March, the government opened bidding for companies willing to participate in a public-private partnership to salvage the vessel.
Under the deal, the contractor will bear the financial burden of the salvage and building a museum in Cartagena to preserve and display the galleon â" a cost the government estimates at $70 million. But the contractor will be entitled to 50 percent of the treasure not considered ânational patrimony,â as determined by the National Council for Cultural Patrimony.
Some archaeologists and historians argue that the vessel and its entire cargo should be considered national heritage and belong in a museum, not broken up to pay for the salvage. But the administration maintains that the contract â" which forces the winning bidder to assume the costs of the operation â" is the only viable way to recover the galleon.
When the San Jose went down, it was carrying six yearsâ worth of accumulated riches gathered from Spanish colonies in Latin America. While no one is sure of the cargoâs value, a U.S. court â" in one of SSAâs many legal battles â" estimated it at $4 billion to $17 billion. Others have said it might be worth as much as $22 billion or as little as $1 billion.
The company that set the baseline for the public-private partnership, and therefore is the âoriginator,â or the bidder that all other companies must compete against, is Marine Archeology Consultationswhere Dooley is listed as âlead researcherâ and âproject coordinator.â
MAC, which is registered in England , couldnât be reached for comment.
SSA and others complain that while MAC and Dooley had almost three years to fine-tune their bids working hand-in-hand with the government, others were given just 30 days. That deadline was extended multiple times and expires Monday. But by all accounts, MAC is the only company that has submitted a successful bid. The Ministry of Culture said it could not confirm whether there were any other interested parties until after Mondayâs deadline.
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Nelson Fredy Padilla, a Colombian journalist who has followed the legal wrangling and written a book about the shipwreck, âThe San Jose Galleon and Other Treasures,â said the opaque nature of the bidding has lent itself to âcorruption.â
The salvage contract âfor the San Jose galleon is a legal option that has been manipulated by the whims of the Juan Manuel Santos government to favor the interests of the British firm MAC,â he said. âIf they really wanted transparency they should have had an open call for bids that would have allowed the input from Colombian universities and scientists.â
Padilla is among those who believe the entirety of the San Jose and its riches are culturally valuable and shouldnât be handed over to âtreasure huntersâ like SSA and MAC.
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ILLUSTRATION (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): COLOMBIA-TREASURE