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Colombia, US Company Dispute Over Sunken Treasure


Ernesto Montenegro is director of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History of Colombia. Here, he talks to reporters while he shows a picture of remains of the galleon San Jose in Cartagena, Colombia, Dec.5, 2015.

Ernesto Montenegro is director of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History of Colombia. Here, he talks to reporters while he shows a picture of remains of the galleon San Jose in Cartagena, Colombia, Dec.5, 2015.


Ownership of undersea gold treasure discovered near a Spanish ship that sank more than 300 years ago is making waves.

The ship, or galleon, named the San Jose could be worth billions of dollars in lost treasure.

The Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History says it discovered the sunken wreck. But an American company says it discovered the ship 30 years ago and owns much of the loot.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos talks to the media about the remains of the Spanish Galleon San Jose.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos talks to the media about the remains of the Spanish Galleon San Jose.

Colombian President Juan Manual Santos said Saturday that the ship was found by an international team of experts. He would not reveal the ship’s location. But the ship is not located where the U.S. company said it was in the early 1980s, he said.

The sunken treasure includes jewelry and gold coins and could be the largest ever found. Experts believe the cargo could be worth billions of dollars if recovered.

An American company called Sea Search Armada says it found the wreck in 1982. Courts in the United States, Colombia and Spain have looked at the dispute.

Maritime law usually gives the discoverer of a shipwreck half of the value of the cargo. But in 1984, Colombia passed a law that gave the company only 5 percent of the value.

Colombia’s Supreme Court says the cargo must be recovered before it can decide who owns the ship.

Santos said Colombia’s claim would be protected. He said a new museum will be built in Cartagena to show the items recovered from the ship.

The navy is closely guarding the shipwreck.

The government says the video and pictures prove the sunken ship is the San Jose.

The San Jose was attacked by British warships and sunk June 8, 1708. Almost all of the 600 people on the ship died. Experts say they believe it was carrying jewels and millions of gold coins. Those jewels and coins were taken from Spanish colonies.

Spain used the money to wage war against Britain.

No humans have reached the site. Special undersea vehicles took pictures of the San Jose that show its cannons and other cargo. Santos said it would take many years to recover the ship’s contents.

“This is not only about raising a bunch of shiny gold coins,” said Justin Leidwanger, a maritime history expert, to the Wall Street Journal. “It’s a discovery of extraordinary cultural and historical importance.”

I’m Mario Ritter.

This story was based on reports from Associated Press, Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal and CNN. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted the story for VOA Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

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Words in This Story

make waves – expression to cause a disturbance or controversy

loot – n. informal money

location – n. a place or position

maritime – adj. of or relating to sailing on the sea or doing business (such as trading) by sea

site – n. a place where something important has happened

cannon – n. a large gun that shoots heavy metal or stone balls and that was once a common military weapon

cargo – n. something that is carried from one place to another by boat, airplane, etc.

bunch – n. informal a large amount; a lot (mostly US)

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