Treasure Hunters File Another Suit Against Columbia
Thursday, April 25, 2013

Sea Search Armada's (SSA) lawsuit against the Government of Colombia in U.S. District Court, Washington D.C. claims it interfered with SSA's legitimate treasure salvage operations.

The galleon San Jose carried coins and precious metals mined and smelted in Peru, and valued by experts to between $4 billion and $17 billion. The ship was sunk outside Cartagena, Colombia in 1708.

In 1980, a marine salvage operation was mounted by a group now owned by SSA with the permission and participation of the Colombian government (GOC). After discovering the San Jose wreck site and notifying the GOC, the Colombians reneged on their agreement to share proceeds of any recovered treasure.

In 1984, the Colombian Parliament enacted a law eliminating SSA’s claims to its property.  After years of negotiations and several lawsuits, the Supreme Court of Colombia ruled in 2007 that SSA was entitled to 50% of the treasure.

After three more years of resistance and delay by the GOC, SSA’s Managing Director Jack Harbeston proposed to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe in 2010 that they undertake a joint recovery effort based on the Supreme Court’s rules.  If SSA received no response within a month, recovery would proceed.  In the meantime, SSA began hiring U.S.-based salvage contractors to perform the work.

The President’s office replied to SSA’s offer more than seven weeks later with a threat to use military force if SSA attempted to access its property.  Confronted with this threat, the U.S. contractors declined to honor their agreement.  SSA lawyer James DelSordo said, “The threat by the government unlawfully interfered with SSA’s business.  It jeopardizes SSA’s entire investment to date (in excess of $12 million), and needlessly prolongs a project that would benefit Colombia and all concerned far more from cooperation than arrogance.” 

The SSA lawsuit replaces one previously dismissed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit due to the expiration of one of its claims of a contractual principle from 1984.  There was no legal process or ruling on either the case’s merits or on the Colombian Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling.

The new lawsuit claims the same compensation as before, $17 billion, which is the estimated amount of the value of the treasure.  It is based on Colombia’s threat of using its navy against SSA. 

Separately, SSA filed a suit March 29 against the GOC with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for violating their human rights over protection of private property and fair trial rules. Two weeks later, SSA lawyer and investor Danilo Devis filed a similar complaint with the IACHR as a private individual.  Thus the GOC has three lawsuits in two venues: U.S. District Court and the IACHR, part of the Organization of American States.

Sea Search Armada is a commercial salvage company based near Seattle, Washington.  It has worked on numerous ship wrecks around the world and has a reputation for scrupulous archeological rescue. 

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