COLOMBIA: Academics clash with the Minister of Culture regarding the San José Galleon

COLOMBIA: Academics clash with the Minister of Culture regarding the San José Galleon

According to El Tiempo, a group of twenty-three Colombian academics, working in national universities or international institutions, published an open letter on December 12 to the Minister of Culture, Juan David Correa Ulloa. In the letter, they express their willingness to engage in scientific dialogues with the national government to make informed decisions regarding the shipwreck of the San José galleon. The ship sank 12 miles off the coast of Cartagena, near the Rosario Islands, on June 8, 1708. (We recommend watching the video chat between Nelson Fredy Padilla, author of the book “The San José Galleon and Other Treasures,” and the writer Héctor Abad Faciolince).

The experts disagree with making an immediate decision regarding the potential recovery of the colonial treasure, consisting of gold, silver, and gemstones valued at up to ten billion dollars. They suggest refraining from such decisions until the possibility of preserving it as a maritime museum at the location where the Spanish-flagged ship was sunk by English pirates is thoroughly evaluated.

They also express opposition to a potential public-private partnership for intervention, citing the commercial implications that such a contract might have, which could jeopardize the conservation of the submerged cultural heritage of the Colombian people.

The academics urge the minister to make any decisions in consensus with Colombian universities and scientists specializing in underwater archaeology. They emphasize that the decisions should be made publicly, not in secret, as has been the practice since the 1980s when the location of the San José galleon was first discussed.


Beyond and Hereabouts the San José Galleon

Open Letter to the Minister of Cultures, Arts, and Knowledge of Colombia –

Colombia, December 12, 2023

Respected Minister Juan David Correa,

The purpose that drives us on this occasion is to contribute to a comprehensive understanding by the government, state officials, and the public of what is at stake in making decisions about the treatment of the archaeological site corresponding to the remains of the San José Galleon. This site is a highly significant but by no means isolated part of the submerged archaeological and cultural heritage of the nation.

In recent days, interviews granted by you in various media outlets, especially international ones, have raised several concerns: 1) that the current government’s intention is to quickly proceed with the extraction of the San José Galleon; 2) that, for this purpose, a public-private partnership will be established; 3) that prior interventions will be carried out on the site to extract archaeological evidence samples to design the precise timeline for extraction; and 4) that “critical voices” on the matter will be heard at an event to be organized in Cartagena next January. Each of these issues deserves detailed consideration.

  1. The extraction of elements constituting the archaeological context of the San José Galleon appears in your statements, and in those made before, and repeatedly by President Gustavo Petro, as an imperative, as something that is a mandatory mandate. This direction disregards or dismisses warnings from expert voices that have recommended considering, first and foremost, in situ preservation actions for at least the past 13 years before exploring any extraction alternatives (1).

Colombia not being a member of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage does not preclude considering, within the scientific rigor that should always accompany decisions in this matter, the arguments underlying the recommendation to prioritize in situ conservation and management as a premise for protecting and safeguarding this heritage (2). Additionally, it should be noted that the necessary conditions have not been generated to give proper treatment to what may eventually be extracted, including the existence of a suitable conservation laboratory for preserving samples and submerged cultural heritage items. In general, aside from the lack of scientific rigor expressed in the imperative to “retrieve” the remains of the San José, the extractive fervor is inconsistent with the emphasis given by this government to the conservation and protection of the common assets of the nation, of which submerged cultural heritage is an integral and significant part.

  1. The establishment of a public-private partnership to materialize the extraction of the elements that are part of the archaeological context of the San José Galleon is highly inconvenient for the protection and better understanding of the nation’s submerged cultural heritage. The legal and administrative figure of the public-private partnership, typical of the development of road infrastructure by concession, seeks to address an entirely different matter, such as the research, conservation, preservation, and management of the nation’s cultural heritage. It also validates the legal inconsistencies of Law 1675 on Submerged Cultural Heritage, some of which were already pointed out by the Constitutional Court in rulings declaring the unconstitutionality of its articles (3). It revives a procedure devised during the government of former President Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) for the extraction of the San José wreck, with interests grounded in the economic gains of treasure hunting companies (4). The inconvenience and risks associated with the signing of such a public-private partnership were calculated even during the government of former President Iván Duque (2018-2022), a proponent of applying private business schemes to cultural processes under the “orange economies” concept. As known, during that government, the process of establishing the public-private partnership with the foreign treasure hunting company Maritime Archaeology Consultants was suspended, and with the opinion of the National Council of Cultural Heritage, in 2020, the archaeological context of the San José Galleon was declared a Cultural Interest of National Scope. Considering the above, along with the constitutional mandate defining archaeological heritage as belonging to the nation, inalienable, unseizable, and imprescriptible, the question arises: what will be the business of private entities now? In general, reviving the mentioned public-private partnership has several negative consequences: a) it may prioritize economic schemes typical of private businesses over the treatment of common assets belonging to the nation’s cultural heritage; b) it disregards national capabilities in the research, protection, conservation, and management of the nation’s cultural heritage, undermines them, and can erode them, always starting from the poor argument that we are a poor country economically, scientifically, and technologically; and c) it deepens the risks of ongoing or future lawsuits by treasure hunting companies speculating on the “treasure” of the San José Galleon, making the work of the National Agency of Legal Defense of the State even more difficult and uncertain.
  2. Any prior intervention in the archaeological context of the San José Galleon, as planned according to your statements during the next March, must have a previously formulated and approved Archaeological Management Plan by the Ministry of Culture and the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History, with a strictly scientific evaluation thereof. The fact that such authorization is in the hands of state entities does not exempt them from complying with the legal procedures that apply in the country for any intervention in cultural assets of national scope and archaeological heritage. On the contrary, they must set an example of legality and make the Plan public before any intervention, including, as stipulated by regulations, a scientifically argued presentation of the need for such intervention, detailed procedures for it, and measures for the management of archaeological heritage items.
  3. As you may have noticed, in this and other instances, so-called “critical voices” have anticipated, warning about the inappropriateness of points 1, 2, and 3 addressed here. These voices, diverse and warning for at least thirteen years with technical, scientific, legal, and ethical arguments about the inappropriate and inconvenient direction successive governments have been giving to the protection and management of submerged cultural heritage and specifically to the San José Galleon site. The critical stance of these voices has been accompanied by a proactive spirit, as made visible in the calls of the University Network of Submerged Cultural Heritage – RUPCS, for the formulation of a State Policy in the matter, recognizing cultural processes and avoiding precisely that each government treats the matter in an improvised, ill-informed manner, and catering to the interests of individuals. Likewise, it has proposed the construction of an initiative for the research, preservation, dissemination, and valuation of this heritage, led by the country and its scientific institutions, with the active participation of universities and research centers with capacities in these matters, and the international support of academically and culturally renowned entities. But in the majority of occasions when we have expressed our opinions and proposals, even in several instances during the current government, a dynamic dialogue that can be considered a debate has not been generated. Thus, listening to “critical voices” can be a diplomatic gesture that only serves the purpose of validating government decisions already established beforehand. Instead, when arguments are heard and discussed, informed decisions consistent with public interests, and not simply with the fulfillment of imperatives, can be made.

Mr. Minister, in one of your most recent statements, published in El Tiempo newspaper (5), you introduced the San José Galleon issue by saying, “This is a topic that we have not finished understanding in its historical dimension because we have been in this discussion for 40 years.” If you properly understand the importance of the issue that the President of the Republic has entrusted you with moving forward, you will recognize that the decisions made now regarding the San José Galleon will have repercussions beyond: on archaeological heritage in general and on long-term cultural processes. We ask: will these decisions add to the long history of intentions to plunder the contents of archaeological heritage in water and on land, as well as to the interests of reopening the door to those who have valued this heritage as a commodity and a business object? Or will they add, as we hope, to the treatment of archaeological heritage as part of the common assets of the nation, with a view to guaranteeing the cultural rights of the citizenry, and the necessary strengthening of a legal protection regime that, after decades of great efforts, was enshrined in the Constitution?

But it is also fair to warn that decisions made about the San José Galleon and, in general, about underwater archaeological heritage must take the pulse, consult and inform, primarily the country. Your recent statements, initially made in international media and only later in national media, are symptomatic of the attitude with which, over the last decades, decisions about the San José Galleon have been made behind closed doors, with the involvement of international actors, and under the pretext that it is a matter of state secrecy, not sufficiently informing the public of the country. Additionally, this attitude, combined with the intention to revive the public-private partnership figure, implies a lack of confidence in national capabilities in science and technology applicable to the protection and management of submerged cultural heritage, placing the extraction of the elements that make it up in the hands of private initiatives with essentially economic interests. International support initiatives are welcome, as long as they strictly involve scientific, technological, and cultural cooperation, with clear leadership by the Colombian state over interventions in the submerged cultural heritage present in Colombian waters. We are confident that an initiative clearly led by the Colombian state, its universities and research centers, strongly supported by a public policy on submerged cultural heritage, and with international cooperation, can mobilize sufficient resources without having to commit large sums of public resources and the integrity of cultural assets in business schemes such as public-private partnerships.

Thanking you in advance for your attention to what is expressed in this open letter, we again make our capabilities available to you so that, in genuine listening, progress can be made in dialogues leading to the consolidation of initiatives that honor the precepts of the political Constitution of the Republic of Colombia: the joint responsibility of the state and individuals in the protection of “the cultural riches of the nation” (Article 8); the state’s duty to promote and encourage citizen access to culture, the development of research, and the dissemination of the cultural values of the nation (Article 70); the cultural heritage of the nation “is under the protection of the state”; and expressly, that “the archaeological heritage and other cultural assets that make up national identity belong to the nation and are inalienable, unseizable, and imprescriptible” (Article 72; see also Article 63).


  1. Early on, since 2010, the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH) issued a technical opinion on aspects of bill 1675 that risked being unconstitutional and could hinder the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural goods. In the following years, criticisms and alternative proposals were made by former directors of the ICANH, the Colombian Society of Archaeology, and organized groups of professionals in archaeology and students from various public and private universities. Critical statements were also made by the Presidents of the World Archaeological Congress and the Society for American Archaeology. Likewise, warnings were issued by the Office of the Attorney General of the Nation, concerned about the violation of constitutional rights due to the law and the public-private partnership bidding, and the UNESCO Directorate of Heritage indicated that the bill went against the established rules for the protection of underwater cultural heritage, which would also promote the business of treasure hunters, as reiterated by the Advisory Council of that entity. More recently, the University Network of Submerged Cultural Heritage – RUPCS was formed, which since 2018 has publicly opposed the commodification of underwater archaeological heritage and has made proposals for the design of a State Policy on the matter. See the statements of the RUPCS at:
  2. See, especially, Annex 1, on “Rules relating to activities related to underwater cultural heritage,” which accompanies the text of the Convention at:
  3. Constitutional Court of Colombia, Judgments C-264/14 and C-332/23.
  4. See the concept on the terms of the public-private partnership bidding, issued in 2018 by an expert group from the University of Antioquia, at the request of the Office of the Attorney General of the Nation:
  5. El Tiempo, online edition of December 1, 2023.


Signed in alphabetical order by last name:

Pedro María Argüello García, Universidad Pedagógica y Tecnológica de Colombia, RUPCS

Sergio Andrés Castro Méndez, Universidad de Santander

David Cohen Daza, Universidad de los Andes, RUPCS

Ana Crespo Solana, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas

Mario Omar Fernández Reguera, Universidad de los Andes, RUPCS

Hernando Javier Giraldo Tenorio, Universidad del Cauca

Alba Nelly Gómez García, Universidad de Antioquia, RUPCS

Juliana Gómez Mejía, Universidad de Caldas

William Gómez Pretelt, Korean Maritime and Ocean University

María Amelia Gutiérrez, Universidad Nacional del Centro de la Provincia de Buenos Aires

Antonio Jaramillo Arango, Universidad del Norte

Luis Gonzalo Jaramillo Echeverri, Universidad de Los Andes, RUPCS

Roberto Enrique Lastra Mier, Universidad del Atlántico, RUPCS

Roberto Lleras Pérez, Miembro de Número, Academia Colombiana de Historia

Juan Guillermo Martin Rincón, Universidad del Norte, RUPCS

Santiago Ortiz Aristizábal, RUPCS

Rodrigo Pacheco Ruiz, National Museum of Royal Navy

Diógenes Patiño Castaño, Universidad del Cauca, RUPCS

Juan Felipe Pérez Díaz, Fundación Proyecto Navío, RUPCS

Carlo Emilio Piazzini Suárez, Universidad de Antioquia, RUPCS

Claudia Mercedes Rojas Sepúlveda, Universidad Nacional de Colombia

Manuel Salge Ferro, Universidad Externado de Colombia

Juan Carlos Vargas Ruiz, Universidad del Magdalena, RUPCS

Source: El Tiempo
Source El Tiempo
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