Colom­bia works to sal­vage leg­endary ship­wreck

But U.S. com­pany says it has claim to dis­cov­ery worth $4B to $17B.

The Denver Post - - NATION & WORLD - By Jim Wyss

This South Amer­i­can na­tion is push­ing ahead with plans to sal­vage one of the hemi­sphere’s rich­est and most leg­endary ship­wrecks — even as a U.S. com­pany in­sists that it de­serves a share of the trea­sure that went down with the San Jose galleon three cen­turies ago.

In a news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day, Pres­i­dent Juan Manuel San­tos said an un­named “in­vestor” will fi­nance the rescue of the Span­ish galleon, which was sunk by the Bri­tish Navy in 1708 off Colom­bia’s Caribbean coast.

San­tos said he couldn’t re­veal the name of the in­vestor un­til July 14, but said it’s some­one, or an in­sti­tu­tion, “that will guar­an­tee a process that’s re­spect­ful of the his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural value of the galleon,” which the govern­ment first ac­knowl­edged dis­cov­er­ing in De­cem­ber 2015.

San­tos said the in­vestor had agreed to a pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship that will bring to­gether a “dream team” of ar­chae­ol­o­gists and en­gi­neers to sal­vage the wreck and put it on dis­play in the tourist port city of Carta­gena.

Those plans put the govern­ment at odds with Sea Search Ar­mada, a sal­vage com­pany based in Belle­vue, Wash., that claims it iden­ti­fied the site of the San Jose in the 1980s. After years of le­gal bat­tles, SSA won a 2007 rul­ing in Colom­bia’s Supreme Court grant­ing it rights to half of the riches not con­sid­ered “na­tional pat­ri­mony.”

The govern­ment, how­ever, in­sists it found the wreck in­de­pen­dently of pre­vi­ous re­search ef­forts.

How much the wreck might be worth is a mat­ter of fevered spec­u­la­tion, but when the San Jose went down, it was thought to be car­ry­ing six years’ worth of ac­cu­mu­lated gold, sil­ver and emer­alds des­tined for Spain.

Dur­ing a U.S. court case in the 1990s, SSA es­ti­mated the cargo was worth be­tween $4 bil­lion and $17 bil­lion, mak­ing the San Jose po­ten­tially the most valu­able ship­wreck in the West­ern Hemi­sphere.

Since Colom­bia an­nounced that it found the ship, SSA has been ask­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion for a joint visit to the site to make sure it’s not the same wreck.

On Wed­nes­day, SSA at­tor­ney Danilo De­vis said the govern­ment had re­cently con­sented to a joint visit, and ex­pected it to hap­pen this month.

De­vis said the com­pany will drop its claims if the ship­wreck is not in the vicin­ity of the co­or­di­nates it pro­vided to the govern­ment in a 1982 re­port.

“If the ship is there, then all of the pres­i­dent’s plans need to be thrown in the garbage,” De­vis told the Mi­ami Her­ald. “And if it’s not there, then all our plans need to go in the garbage. … But we be­lieve they’ve re­dis­cov­ered some­thing we’ve al­ready dis­cov­ered.”

In an email, SSA Pres­i­dent Jack Harbe­ston sug­gested that the com­pany might try to make the ship­wreck a diplo­matic is­sue if its rights are vi­o­lated.

“It would ap­pear that the (2016) No­bel Peace Lau­re­ate (San­tos) has no re­gard for the rule of law,” he said. “We have yet to see how the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will re­act to San­tos il­le­gally tak­ing the prop­erty of U.S. in­vestors.”

On Wed­nes­day, San­tos re­told the story of an un­named aca­demic who had been study­ing the mys­tery for 40 years and was key to un­lock­ing the lo­ca­tion of the San Jose.

In San­tos’ telling, the man cor­nered him at a United Na­tions event in 2015.

“He had been try­ing to talk to me for a long time, and I thought he was just an­other per­son, like so many others, who was search­ing for the trea­sure. And I hadn’t paid any at­ten­tion to him,” San­tos said.

The man claimed he’d found a map in the U.S. Li­brary of Con­gress that had been drawn by a Span­ish spy who was work­ing for the English.

“This map was com­pletely new,” San­tos said.

In the past, Spain and Peru have sug­gested they might fight for a share of the San Jose’s bounty.

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