December 3, 2023

A bit of (mostly) nonpolitical news that popped up this weekend and seems interesting comes to us from Colombia, where President Gustavo Petro is attempting to bring the wreck of a three-century-old Spanish galleon to the surface from 2,000 feet under the water. The legendary wreck of the San Jose’ is known as “the holy grail of shipwrecks” because it is believed to contain as much as $20 billion in treasure. You can never have those kinds of figures floating around without attracting a lot of attention and controversy, however, and this story is no exception. Petro wants to “pick up the pace” so the wreck can be recovered before he leaves office in 2026. But there is a dispute over who actually has the rights to the wreck based on who finally discovered it.


Colombia is hoping to expedite its mission to recover a three-century-old sunken treasure worth as much as $20 billion as the ownership of the fortune lies in legal limbo amid an ongoing court battle.

President Gustavo Petro ordered his administration to exhume the “holy grail of shipwrecks” — the Spanish galleon San José — from the floor of the Caribbean Sea as soon as possible, the country’s minister of culture told Bloomberg last week.

Petro wants to bring the 62-gun, three-masted ship to the surface before his term is up in 2026 and has requested a public-private partnership be formed to see it through, Minister of Culture Juan David Correa told the outlet Wednesday.

The galleon sank in 1708 during a battle against the British Navy and it later became a legend among treasure seekers. Finally, in 1981, an American company called Glocca Morra located and photographed the wreck. After some negotiations, they turned over the coordinates to the Columbian government with the promise that they would receive half of the value of the treasure, or $10 billion. But the wreck would be very difficult to reach with the technology of the time and no action was taken.

Much later, in 2015, Colombia’s then-President Juan Manuel Santos released a statement saying that the Colombian Navy had located the San Jose’ at a different location. So now the current president is rushing to organize an operation to recover the treasure but he apparently has no plans to honor the original deal and give half of the money to Glocca Morra, which is now called Sea Search Armada. They are now suing Petro’s government for $10 billion, but the Colombians are claiming that they searched the coordinates provided by the Americans and “there is no shipwreck there.”


Sea Search Armada counters that claim by saying that the Colombian Navy simply found a different part of the ship’s debris field, which is scattered across a stretch of the ocean floor. And on top of that, they still have the photos of the wreck at the coordinates they provided. When you add in the urgency that Gustavo Petro is demonstrating, wanting to get this done “while still in office,” it really sounds like he plans on raising the loot and keeping it all for himself (or as much as he can get away with) and freeze out the Americans who discovered it.

I’m sure most of you are shocked to hear anyone suggest that there could be corruption taking place in a country that is most famous for its drug cartels and human trafficking operations. But these are proposed official actions by the nation’s government and this would be pretty brazen even by Colombian standards. Does Petro really think he can get away with simply stealing billions of dollars in lost treasure? Then again, it’s his country. Perhaps he can.