Peruvians Feel Robbed over Decision to Give Treasure to Spain

Peruvians feel robbed over a decision by the U.S. courts to give Spain 17 tons of silver and gold coins that a private company retrieved from a wreck of a colonial-era sailing ship.

The treasure's origin is not in dispute. The metals were mined and the coins minted in the Andes. The Spanish navy frigate that was carrying them to Spain exploded during an attack by British warships in 1804.

Peru argued it should get the precious metal recovered from the Nuestra Senora de Las Mercedes. But its legal case was sunk in large part by a historical fact: This country was, at the time, a Spanish dependency. It didn't gain independence until 1821, the last bastion of Spanish rule in South America.

"It is uncontested that the Mercedes is the property of Spain," a three-judge U.S. appeals court ruled in September.

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Many Peruvians, however, feel they are entitled to the booty because of colonial Spain's violent, exploitative legacy. Countless natives of the Andes were forced to abandon home and family and toil in life-choking conditions extracting ore underground.

"Spain's progenitors were genocidal to our progenitors, the indigenous of Peru, thousands if not millions of whom died in underground mines going after that metal," said Rodolfo Rojas Villanueva, an activist with the eco-cultural movement Patria Verde.

Other Peruvians would be happy to get a share of the 594,000 coins, whose value has been estimated at $500 million, not so much as reparations but because they are Peru's heritage.

Spanish officials flatly reject any Peruvian claim.

Spain's culture minister, Jose Ignacio Wert, received the treasure with considerable fanfare Feb. 27 after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a bid by Peru to halt the shipment. Wert said U.S. courts were clear: "The legacy of the Mercedes belongs to Spain."

The coins, mostly silver reals but also gold doubloons, came from ore mined in present-day Peru and Bolivia and likely also Colombia and Chile. It's not clear exactly what portion was minted in Lima, Spain's continental capital after its conquistadors subjugated the Incas.

Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa, Florida, recovered the treasure in 2007 about 160 kilometers (100 miles) west of the Strait of Gibraltar and placed it in the custody of U.S. courts, which declared the find exempt from their jurisdiction and ordered it turned over to Spain.

Peru and Odyssey have appeals before the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to overturn those rulings.

Peru's government says the coins are the country's patrimony.

"There existed an entity, a country that had not yet become independent but was a territory that later converted itself into an independent country, that is called Peru," said Jose Antonio Garcia Belaunde, foreign minister in the 2006-2011 government of President Alan Garcia. "The money belonged to that territory."

Peru's ambassador in Washington, Harold Forsyth, put it less abstractly: "The ship departed from the port of Callao (adjacent to Lima) with a cargo of coins minted in Peru, extracted from Peruvian mines with arms and sweat of Peruvians."

Peru has fought previously for archaeological artifacts lost to the developed world. Under Garcia, it successfully campaigned to persuade Yale University to agree to return hundreds of items taken from the famed Inca citadel of Machu Picchu a century ago by the U.S. explorer Hiram Bingham.

In the case of Las Mercedes, it is not just Odyssey and Peru laying claim to the doubloons and reals.

Others include descendants of the ship's captain, Diego de Alvear Ponce de Leon, and of merchants who Odyssey says collectively owned three-quarters of the coins. Those merchants paid Spain a 1 percent conveyance tax.

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"In essence, this is an expropriation," said Rafael Fernandez de Lavalle, a Colombian who claims about 800 silver coins and a small chest from Las Mercedes. "It is really upsetting that they can rob you in such a brazen manner."

He is descended from one of the merchants, a Peruvian-born count, Jose Antonio de Lavalle y Cortes, who exported cacao to Spain, and belongs to a group of 17 mostly Peruvian families who have also appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Spanish historians generally defend their country's right to the coins. But some think the nations of origin should be able to display some of it.

"It would be very good to send a part, if only as a loan, as a message of fraternity," said Marina Alfonso, a historian at UNED University in Seville.

Wert, Spain's culture minister, said his nation has not ruled out allowing some of the coins to go on display in Latin America, but stresses it would only be on loan.

Alfonso said most of the recovered silver almost certainly came from Potosi, part of present-day Bolivia and once the world's richest silver lode.

Bolivia's culture minister, Pablo Groux, said numismatic experts have determined the coins were minted in four places: Lima; Popayan, Colombia; Santiago, Chile; and Potosi.

He said his country has formally requested a share of the treasure but decided not to litigate, considering its case weak.

"We think the strategy should be diplomatic," he said.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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