MSC's Preferential Customs Status Suspended Over Cocaine Bust

MSC Gayane (file image courtesy Hafen Hamburg)

Published Jun 21, 2019 7:47 PM by The Maritime Executive

Number-two ocean carrier MSC has had its preferential American customs inspection status temporarily suspended after the record-setting $1 billion cocaine seizure aboard the container ship MSC Gayane earlier this week. The interdiction was the second large drug bust involving an MSC boxship this year. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has temporarily suspended MSC's voluntary participation in the Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) program over the two seizures. 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, and it will have no impact on its access to the American market. "We are actively seeking to assure the authorities that our certification can be reinstated as soon as possible,” MSC said in a customer advisory, which was first reported by FreightWaves. 

Six crewmembers from the MSC Gayane have been charged in connection with the seizure of 15.5 tonnes of cocaine at the port of Philadelphia on Monday. The record-setting haul has an estimated street value of $1 billion. It was the second bust involving an MSC ship at the port since March, when authorities seized about 1,200 pounds of cocaine from containers aboard the MSC Desiree. 

According to Fonofaavae Tiasaga, a crewmember from the Gayane who has pleaded guilty to smuggling charges, the container ship's crew brought the cocaine aboard in high-seas transfers involving 14 separate boats, which met up with the boxship while she was under way between Peru and Panama. These waters are known as a hotbed of smuggling activity, and they are the primary geographic focus of the U.S. Coast Guard's at-sea interdiction campaign in the Eastern Pacific. 

On Friday, U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain told the Philadelphia Inquirer that his office was looking into multiple potential penalties for the Gayane smuggling incident, including the option of attempting to seize the vessel herself through criminal forfeiture proceedings. Criminal forfeiture requires securing a criminal conviction - a much higher bar than that for civil forfeiture, the powerful tool that allows American law enforcement to seize property on suspicion of drug trafficking involvement.