U.S. jails MSC crew member for role in record cocaine smuggling bust

MSC Gayane crewman jailed 5 years for cocaine smuggling


A former crew member on board MSC Gayane containership has been sentenced to more than five years in prison for his role in a plot to smuggle $1 billion worth of cocaine through the port of Philadelphia, the U.S. Justice Department has said.

Vladimir Penda, 27, of Montenegro, was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Harvey Bartle III to five years and ten months in prison plus two years of supervised release on charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute.

Penda is now the eighth former crew member of the ship to be plead guilty in to the drug smuggling conspiracy.

Federal, state, and local law enforcement agents boarded the MSC Gayane when it arrived at Packer Marine Terminal in Philadelphia on June 17, 2019, and seized about 20 tons of cocaine worth over $1 billion U.S. dollars found in shipping containers. It was one of the largest drug seizures in U.S. history and the largest in the history of the Customs and Border Protection.

According to the Justice Department, Penda was serving as the ship’s fourth engineer when he conspired with other crew members on board to smuggle the drugs.

During MSC Gayane’s voyage to Philadelphia, on “multiple occasions” the crew members helped load bulk packages of cocaine onto the vessel from speedboats that approached the vessel at sea in the middle of the night. Crew members used the vessel’s crane to hoist cargo nets full of cocaine onto the vessel and then stashed the cocaine in the vessel’s shipping containers. The even bent railing and pulled back doors on the containers so they could fit the huge quantities of cocaine inside. After hiding the drugs among legitimate cargo, crew members then used fake seals to reseal them.

The other crew members included the ship’s chief officer, second officer, and other members of both the deck and engine department, but not the captain.

“It has been nearly two years since federal agents conducted one of the largest drug seizures in U.S. history,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Williams. “The follow-up investigation uncovered dark-of-night, clandestine drug trafficking conduct which read like a movie plot, and prosecutors in our Office have been working non-stop since then to pursue justice in this case. With Mr. Penda’s just sentence being handed down today, this chapter of the MSC Gayane saga is now coming to a close.”

The ship was arrested and later released on $50 million bail paid for by the ship’s owner and operator, MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company. Prior to arriving in Philadelphia on June 16, the MSC Gayane made port calls in Chile, Peru, Panama and the Bahamas. The ship’s final destination was ultimately northern Europe, with calls scheduled at Rotterdam, Antwerp and Le Havre.

“Let [this] sentencing serve as a reminder that 2 years ago this June, Mr. Penda and his coconspirators attempted to smuggle close to 20 tons of cocaine, with an estimated street value of $1 billion dollars through the port of Philadelphia. This sends a clear message to criminals around the world that our critical infrastructure is not a safe harbor for drug trafficking,” said Brian A. Michael, Special Agent in Charge for Homeland Security Investigations Philadelphia. “Protecting the Homeland against transnational crime is a top priority of Homeland Security Investigations, and together with our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners, we are committed to detecting and disrupting transnational drug smuggling.”

Other crew members involved in the conspiracy have been listed as Bosko Markovic, 39, of Montenegro, the ship’s chief officer; Ivan Durasevic, 31, of Montenegro, the second officer; Nenad Ilic, 41, of Montenegro, the engineer cadet; Aleksandar Kavaja, 27, of Montenegro, the electrician; Stefan Bojevic, 29, of Serbia, the assistant reeferman; Fonofaavae Tiasaga, 29, of Samoa, an able seaman; and Laauli Pulu, 34, of Samoa, an ordinary seaman.

“The many successful prosecutions following CBP’s record-setting cocaine seizure of June 2019 should serve as a reminder to those willing to help drug trafficking organizations that narcotics smuggling has very serious consequences,” said Keith Fleming, Acting Director of Field Operations for CBP’s Baltimore Field Office. “Customs and Border Protection and our law enforcement partners remain steadfast in our commitment to intercept shipments of dangerous drugs before they can be smuggled through our nation’s borders.”