Colombia, Spain, or a US company: who owns the 10 billion dollars at the bottom of the sea?

  The San Jose Galleon shipwrecked more than 200 years ago full of treasures that were going to Spain, is in Colombian waters and a US company found it


10 billion dollars are in the bottom of the sea inside the San José Galleon. It is the approximate calculation given by the Colombian Government on the value of the more than 10 million pieces that lie at the bottom of the sea. However, the dispute for Colombia is not only about who will make the private public alliance to get the treasure from the sea. A private company of American origin claims rights over the treasure, as does Spain, who argues that the ship, being its property, transfers all the treasure to the Iberian country. A new problem has just arisen in Colombia because the National Prosecutor's Office ruled this week and affirmed that less than 100 days after the end of the presidential term, this type of contract could not be signed.

Leer en español: Colombia, España o una empresa: ¿de quién son los 10 mil millones de dólares en el fondo del mar?


Who is the treasure?


Sea Search Armada (SSA)


This US company in 1981 claimed to have found the galleon, but in 1984 the Colombian government denied that the sunken ship had been found. In 2007, when the galleon was declared a national heritage, SSA continued its fight for the rights that they believe correspond to it. Despite the fact that in 2011 federal courts declared in favor of Colombia, SSA is still fighting.


"The Colombian government maintains the big lie that they 'won' the case in federal court and that SSA lost its rights to the treasure, and nothing could be further from reality", Jack Harbeston, director of SSA. The company brings up an opinion of the Supreme Court of Justice of Colombia, which established that half of everything that was found in the galleon that was not patrimony had to be divided in halves between SSA and the Colombian government.




The position of the Spanish government is that it is a "State ship", and not of private ownership, which makes it protected by sovereign immunity. In this sense, international law states that warships have sovereign immunity, that is, they enjoy a kind of extraterritoriality as if they were a small area of territory of their State of origin no matter where they are. Especially if they have been sunk in combat. The San José, sunk after an ambush by a British fleet in the eighteenth century, is part of Spain for its territory and therefore has rights over it.


Spain has already experienced a similar situation, which can harm Colombia. In 2007, Spain got back the treasure of the Las Mercedes frigate sunk in October 1804 at Cape Santa Maria, off the Portuguese coast of the Algarve, and that had been found by a US company. It was a court in Florida that forced to return the treasure to the Iberian country.




In 2013, the Colombian congress approved the submerged heritage law for the protection of underwater treasures, under which the San José Galleon would be sheltered. The law states that the government owns what is declared heritage and that it is submerged in its maritime territory. The San Jose Galleon was found off the coast of Cartagena.


Colombia is not part of the Unesco underwater heritage agreement signed in Paris in 2001, so the arguments of Spain do not affect it either, since, not being part of said convention, there is no obligation in compliance according to International Law.




Although many of the pieces found inside the San José galleon are believed to originate in Peru, this South American country has not formally submitted its application for ownership rights over the treasure at sea. At the moment this country is not part of the range of shocks for Colombia.


Internal national mess


The national attorney's office has notified the Ministry of Culture that "neither the Ministry of Culture nor the head of state can sign such an association with only 100 days left before the end of the presidential term. If he wanted to do so, in accordance with Law 996 of 2005, he should have signed the contract four months before leaving office"; this taking into account that even the public-private alliance that is wanted to be used for the extraction of the treasure has not been signed.


The date agreed to award the tender was scheduled for next May 25, date in which already, according to the Attorney General, no state entity can sign a contract.


Latin American Post | Carlos Eduardo Gómez Avella

Copy edited by Laura Rocha Rueda

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