Hundreds of sunken boats and thousands of other items lying hidden in the ocean, rivers, lakes, and cave pools, which make up part of Mexico's cultural heritage each year, are the much-desired booty of marine treasure hunters.
According to Pilar Luna, a pioneer of marine archaeology in Mexico, there are up to 250 sunken boats registered in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. But it is estimated that there are thousands of vessels, both large and small, that sank off the country's coasts.
In addition, some 30 areas of items have been tallied in cenotes and sunken caves, where ancient civilizations like the Maya deposited bodies, personal objects, and food in conducting their spiritual rituals.
The treasures of Mexico are exposed to looting by adventurers who erase the traces of the country's forebears, said Pilar Luna, an expert with the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), who has devoted over 30 years of work to the investigation and preservation of underwater cultural heritage.
The boats that sank in Mexico belonged to the series of fleets that, starting in the 16th century, were used by the colonisers to transport people and merchandise from the New World to Spain.
These vessels were mainly loaded with cargos of gold, silver, and precious stones that the colonies sent to Madrid as a tribute to offset the expenses of the Spanish monarchy.
"The interests have not changed. It continues to be the precious metals that are pursued by treasure hunters at any cost and by those who forget that, beyond their economic value, it is history and culture," Luna said.
Since 1970s, INAH has declined over 30 requests to do salvage work on sunken vessels that have been found in Mexican waters.
One of those requests came from Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc., which became famous in 2007 after salvaging $500 million in gold and silver coins from the wreck of a Spanish ship that sank in an 1804 battle off the coast of Portugal, though US courts must still decide whether the treasure rightfully belongs to the firm or to the Spanish government.