A SUDDEN gust of wind rocks the Tiger, a black inflatable dinghy
floating in the murky brown water of the Rio de la Plata, just
outside the port of Montevideo. As torrential rain descends from
the overcast morning sky, a diver emerges from the water and is
helped onto the Tiger before it turns and heads toward the nearby
beach, where Ruben Collado is watching anxiously.
Mr. Collado, a 55-year-old Argentine, has good reason to be
concerned about the premature end of the day's work. Barely 500
yards from where he stands lies one of the world's most valuable
treasures, valued at $400 million to $500 million.
It is also one of the most contentious. South American
indigenous groups are demanding the treasure be returned to the
descendants of its original owners, the continent's native peoples.
For two years, Collado's team of eight divers has been
scavenging the rocky seabed near Montevideo, collecting the riches
of the Preciado, a French ship chartered by the Spanish in 1792. As
the Preciado was leaving the city's port, English pirates attacked
and sank it. The ship and its coveted booty of gold, silver,
emeralds, and rubies lay 26 feet below sea level for nearly 200
years until Collado gathered a team of divers and experts to get it.
Code-named "Brujas," the operation to rescue the treasure has so
far recovered 1,600 gold coins, a number of silver coins, gold
bars, cannons, and cannonballs. Each of the gold coins is valued at
more than $15,000, and it could take up to 10 years to recover all
the treasure. Divers, sometimes working nearly 14 hours per day
depending on the weather, are now concentrating their search on a
life-size gold statue of the Virgin Mary that the Preciado was
taking to Europe.
"It is the most precious and valuable piece of the treasure. But
we are having terrible problems with the weather.... It is a very
slow and dangerous process," Collado says.
The former professional diver carries in his wallet the first
gold and silver coins recovered, and he proudly displays them to
visitors. The rest of the recovered treasure lies in the vaults of
the Bank of Uruguay, and all profits from its sale will be split
equally between Uruguay's government and Collado and his backers,
whose identities have been kept secret.
South America's indigenous groups, however, are demanding that
at least part of the money from the sale of the treasure be given
to the native people from whom it was originally plundered by
Their anger is compounded by this year's celebrations marking
the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival. The treasure's return,
they argue, is the least compensation that should be given to a
people who suffered enslavement and near-genocide at the hands of
the white colonizers. Its presence in Uruguay is particularly
ironic as indigenous people there have been all but wiped out in
the last 500 years.
"The important thing to remember is that the riches that were
stolen from South America helped in the development of Europe and
led to the underdevelopment of this continent," says Carlos
Fuentes, coordinator general of the Argentine Aboriginal
Foundation, a group representing indigenous people in South