MSC Gayane Crewmember Pleads Guilty to Smuggling Charges

MSC Gayane (file image courtesy Hafen Hamburg)

Published Jun 16, 2020 4:57 PM by The Maritime Executive

A Montenegrin seafarer has pleaded guilty to charges of cocaine smuggling in connection with the giant drug seizure aboard the boxship MSC Gayane last year. 

Vladimir Penda, 27, was the fourth engineer aboard MSC Gayane. On multiple occasions during the incident voyage, Penda helped load bulk cocaine onto the vessel from speedboats that approached under cover of darkness, prosecutors alleged. Multiple crewmembers used the Gayane’s crane to hoist cargo nets full of cocaine onto the vessel, then stashed the drugs in shipping containers.

On June 17, 2019, law enforcement agents boarded the MSC Gayane when she arrived at Packer Marine Terminal in Philadelphia. After a search, they seized about 20 tons of cocaine with a street value of over $1 billion. It was one of the largest drug seizures in U.S. history and the largest in the history of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Given the scale of the seizure, Penda faces a maximum possible sentence of life in prison. In addition to Penda, 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.

"Over the past year, prosecutors in my office, in conjunction with our partner agencies, have been working non-stop to pursue justice in this case in order to protect our district and our country," said United States Attorney William M. McSwain. "We want to send a strong message to criminals around the world that Philadelphia is not a safe harbor for their deadly drug trafficking."

The MSC Gayane case was unprecedented, not only for its size but also for the law enforcement response. U.S. Customs and Border Protection temporarily seized the entire vessel - the largest it has ever taken into custody - "as being subject to possible forfeiture to the United States." The ship was later released on a $50 million bond. 

In addition, number-two ocean carrier MSC had its preferential American customs inspection status temporarily suspended due to the bust, which was the third involving its ships within the span of a year. MSC has not been accused of wrongdoing, and the company said in a statement at the time of the seizure that it was working with American authorities to fight trafficking.