WASHINGTON (CN) - Treasure hunters sued Colombia for $17 billion, claiming it reneged on a deal - and threatened military action - over the galleon San Jose, sunk by the British navy in battle on June 8, 1708.
Sea Search Armada sued the Republic of Colombia in Federal Court, claiming the country interfered with its contract to salvage the shipwreck.
The Delaware-based treasure hunters claim that in 1980 Colombia's Dirección General Maritima gave its blessing for Sea Search's predecessor, Glocca Morra Co., to explore the Columbian continental shelf for shipwrecks.
In 1981, Sea Search says, it discovered the sunken remains of the galleon San Jose, which went down carrying "precious metal in the forms of coins and bullion, which were privately owned by Peruvian and European merchants. Based on SSA's research and analysis by independent experts in mineral values, the current value of the cargo is between $4 billion and $17 billion."
The complaint adds: "Based on archival research conducted by SSA, at the time the San Jose was sunk, it was carrying cargo from the Spanish Viceroyalty of Tierra Firma, primarily from what is now Peru, via the Isthmus of Panama."
Colombia agreed to let Glocca Morra recover the treasure in exchange for 65 percent of its value, but the deal soured after Glocca Morra transferred its rights under the contract to Sea Search, according to the complaint.
"Subsequently, in 1984 the Colombian Parliament enacted a law giving Colombia all rights to treasure salvaged from the San Jose site, eliminating all of SSA's property rights in the treasure (the 'Seizure Law')," the complaint states. "The Seizure Law provided that SSA would receive only a 5 percent finder's fee and that this finder's fee would be taxed at a rate of 45 percent."
A decades-long legal battle ensued. Finally, the Supreme Court of Colombia denied the country's appeal and found that Colombia and SSA owned any treasures recovered from the San Jose site in equal shares, the complaint states.
But Colombia continued to interfere, Sea Search says, and in 2010 ignored a letter from Sea Search requesting that the recovery commence under the terms of the original contract-because "it wasn't in Spanish."
Another letter was drafted in Spanish, stating that Sea Search would recover the treasure with or without the country's blessing if it refused to agree to terms.
That prompted a strong response from Colombia.
"Considering that this concerns the defense of the integrity of Colombian territory, as well as assets owned by the Nation, the National Armed Forces will prevent the realization of unauthorized activities in jurisdiction maritime areas," Colombia wrote to Sea Search, according to the complaint.
Based on those threats, Sea Search says, it lost its U.S. salvage contractors and the money it had invested in the salvage preparations.
Sea Search claims Colombia knew of its contracts with these companies, including Louisiana-based oceanographers Trepid International, and made its threat to interfere with the company's contracts.
Sea Search demands that Colombia to pay it the full $17 billion estimated value of the sunken treasure.
It is represented by James DelSordo, with Argus Legal, in Manassas, Va.
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