The fight over billions in sunken treasure

This undated photo taken by Colombia’s Anthropology and History Institute (ICANH) and distributed by Colombia’s Ministry of Culture, shows sunken remains from the Spanish galleon San Jose, on the seafloor off Cartagena, Colombia.

By Jim Wyss - News Observer

When Colombia announced early this month that it had discovered the wreckage of the San José galleon, brimming with colonial-era bullion and studded with bronze cannons, President Juan Manuel Santos hailed it as an “enormous” find for “all of humanity.”

The 300-year-old shipwreck had been identified, he said, thanks to the work of world-class scientists, Colombia’s navy, and a mysterious, bearded researcher who Santos said “looks like Hemingway” and who gave him a previously unknown map.

But a U.S.-based salvage outfit, called Sea Search Armada, has a more prosaic explanation for the discovery: It claims it found the San José more than 30 years ago and provided the coordinates to the government in 1982.

In 2007, after a lengthy legal battle, Colombia’s Supreme Court reaffirmed the rights of SSA, based in Bellevue, Wash., to half of the riches on the ship not considered national patrimony.

The government insists it found the San José independently and at a previously uncharted site. But as far as SSA is concerned, the “rediscovery” is a backdoor attempt to deny them their share.

Danilo Devis Pereira, the company’s longtime lawyer in Colombia, said the administration’s Dec. 5 announcement defies logic. “Either there are two San José galleons or they found the same one a second time,” he said from his office in the coastal city of Barranquilla.

“If it’s true that they found the shipwreck in another area then I’ll rip my arm off.”

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