Boxship MSC Gayane Seized After Record-Setting Cocaine Bust

MSC Gayane (file image courtesy Hafen Hamburg)

Published Jul 9, 2019 1:20 PM by The Maritime Executive

On July 4, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seized the 10,000 TEU container ship MSC Gayane "as being subject to possible forfeiture to the United States" after a massive cocaine shipment was discovered on board at the Port of Philadelphia. The enforcement action was announced on Monday, July 8. 

The MSC Gayane is the largest vessel that CBP has ever seized. "This action serves as a reminder for all shipping lines and vessel masters of their responsibilities under U.S. and international law to implement and enforce stringent security measures to prevent smuggling attempts such as this," said Casey Durst, CBP’s Director of Field Operations in Baltimore.

In mid-June, federal agents searched the MSC Gayane and found a total of nearly 18 tonnes (20 short tons) of cocaine concealed in multiple shipping containers. It was the largest cocaine seizure in the agency's history, and the haul has a street value of approximately $1.3 billion.

“A seizure of a vessel this massive is complicated and unprecedented – but it is appropriate because the circumstances here are also unprecedented,” said U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain. “When a vessel brings such an outrageous amount of deadly drugs into Philadelphia waters, my office and our agency partners will pursue the most severe consequences possible against all involved parties in order to protect our district – and our country.”
Six members of the Gayane's crew - Bosco Markovic, Alekandar Kavaja, Nenad Ilic, Laauli Pulu, Fonofaavae Tiasaga and Ivan Durasevic - have been charged in connection with the smuggling scheme. Tiasaga told prosecutors that the container ship's crew brought the cocaine aboard in high-seas transfers involving 14 separate boats during a transit between Peru and Panama. Local media reported that the shipment of cocaine was ultimately intended for delivery in the Netherlands and France, not for the American market. 

Ocean carrier MSC has had its preferential American customs inspection status temporarily suspended due to the cocaine bust, which is the third involving its ships this year. The move may mean more inspections for containers arriving from Central and South America, according to MSC, but the carrier says that it does not expect any significant disruption to its operations due to the suspension.

MSC has not been accused of wrongdoing, and the company said in a statement in June that it was working with American authorities to fight trafficking. The case is being investigated by CBP, Homeland Security Investigations and an array of other federal, state and local agencies.