Lawsuit blocks Colombia attempt to salvage billions in sunken treasure

One of the world’s most fought-over sunken galleons — the 300-year-old San José, worth a potential $17 billion — will remain on the ocean’s floor a little longer, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said Monday.

During a televised event where he was expected to announce the name of the company that would help the government rescue the Spanish galleon, Santos instead said a local court had challenged the “public-private partnership” contract, forcing him to suspend the process.

The suit was brought by an anonymous group of “concerned citizens” — but Santos brushed it off as just one more fight over the San José’s riches.

“There are so many interests involved,” he said in a televised speech. “We’ve had to face enormous legal battles in national and [international] courts, in this administration and previous ones.”

But he said the government’s case and approach were solid.

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Under the terms of the proposed contract, the winning company would be responsible for salvaging the wreck and building a museum in Cartagena to showcase the discovery. In exchange, it would be entitled to 50 percent of all the treasure not considered “national patrimony” — unique artwork and historically significant pieces.

The lawsuit argues that the ship and all of its cargo should belong to the state.

“History will not forgive us if new and sophisticated conquistadors, known by the [United Nations] as treasure hunters ... once again loot the galleon like it was prey,” part of the lawsuit reads.

The latest legal battle over the San José began in December 2015, when Santos announced the storied galleon, which was sunk by the British Armada, had been found.

Immediately, the government faced challenges to its claim. In particular, Sea Search Armada, a Bellevue, Washington-based company, said it found the wreck in 1983 and that the coordinates it provided to the government at the time were crucial to the San José’s “rediscovery” in 2015. In 2007, Colombia’s Supreme Court ruled that Sea Search Armada had the right to half of any treasure at the site that wasn’t considered “national patrimony.”

At the time the San José was sunk by the British Armada in 1708, it was carrying six years’ worth of accumulated treasure from Latin America back to Spain. In one of Sea Search Armada’s many lawsuits, the company estimated the value of the cargo at between $4 billion and $17 billion.

Santos has dismissed Sea Search officials as greedy “treasure hunters” and he says the Colombian government found the site independently thanks to a team of international researchers, U.K.-based Maritime Archeology Consultants and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

And while the government has said the San José is not at the coordinates provided by Sea Search, its exact location remains a state secret.

The lead investigator on the government project, Roger Dooley, said he studied historical texts, wind patterns and other variables to narrow down the search area. On Monday, Santos said the expedition covered more than 80 nautical miles off the coast of Cartagena to find the wreck.

The discovery and salvage of the San José were meant to be one of the signature achievements of Santos’ eight years in office, along with reaching a historical and controversial peace deal with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC.

On Monday, Santos said he had hoped to be the one to sign the contract. Instead, it will be up to incoming President Iván Duque, who will be sworn in on Aug. 7, to push the deal forward.

In a video, the government described how researchers returned to survey the wreck in 2016, revealing Chinese pottery, brass cannons and other artifacts.

“All of this is invaluable and will be handed over to the new government in its entirety,” Santos said. “I ask the Colombian people to take care of this, like you must take care of the peace [deal] — take care of the treasure of the San José galleon.”