MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY — 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 Spanish conquistadors.
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 America. "It makes sense that indigenous people should be compensated because they are the victims of an empire which killed and plundered."
The Preciado's treasure was taken from northern Chile and Peru, and indigenous people made the gold coins and the statue of the Virgin Mary. Most of the silver came from the Bolivian city of Potosi, where an estimated 8 million indigenous people died during the years of Spanish rule while working in the inhumane conditions of the silver mines. Millions more were put into forced labor and torn away from their communities and their traditional agricultural work.
Collado, who dresses in a sharp Wall Street executive-style suit and straps a revolver to his waist for "protection," reacts angrily to suggestions that money from the treasure should be given to its rightful owners.
"It's ridiculous to say that I should have to compensate indigenous people because of what happened in the past. The world has changed and we have to look to the future and put history behind us. The treasure now rightfully belongs to the Uruguayan government, and we have to put all these nonsense arguments behind us," he says.
"And anyway, there are very few indigenous groups left to give it back to. Most of them have been killed."
But the Argentine Aboriginal Foundation estimates that more than 9 million indigenous people living in South America today, most of them occupying the lowest social positions and suffering from chronic poverty and racial discrimination.
"We define indigenous as those who still keep some semblance of their former culture. There are millions more who are of mixed race or those who have moved away from their culture and language over the past 500 years," says Dr. Fuentes.
Uruguayan officials dismiss these indigenous claims. "The treasure now rightfully belongs to us because it rests within the territorial waters of Uruguay," says a government spokesman. "This is in keeping with our Constitution, and we plan to use the money from its sale for social and welfare programs, for the benefit of our people."
An estimated 1,200 shipwrecks line Uruguay's coast, where bad weather and turbulent waters make navigation difficult. Collado claims to know of at least seven wrecks with treasure, but says his next venture will be to rescue the loot from a Portuguese ship that sank off Brazil with nearly 15,000 lbs. of gold.
With the first of the Preciado's treasure due to be auctioned later this year in either New York or London, South America's indigenous groups are struggling to have their message heard.
"We cannot understand the happiness the world feels at Columbus's arrival 500 years ago." Fuentes says. "As far as indigenous people are concerned, it was the start of slavery and the end of freedom. And in Uruguay, we are seeing people enjoying the profits of this misery."