Containership coke bust case engineer gets 70 month prison term

Written by Nick Blenkey
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MCS Gayane moored in Philadelphia after CBP's record cocaine seizure. On June 17, the CBP and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) led multi-agency team detected anomalies in seven shipping containers and extracted 39,525 pounds of cocaine. The cocaine is said to have a street value of about $1.3 billion

Vladimir Penda, 27, the former fourth engineer of the containership MSC Gayane, was today sentenced to five years and 10 months in prison plus two years of supervised release on charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine on a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.

Penda, a citizen of Montenegro, had entered a plea of guilty to the charges on June 16, 2020.

Today’s sentence is the most recent development in a case that began on June 17, 2019, when law enforcement officials boarded the MSC Gayane when it arrived at Packer Marine Terminal in Philadelphia and seized 19.76 tons of cocaine.

SHIP SEIZED

The ship was seized and was held until the owner, a subsidiary of JP Morgan, and operator, Mediterranean Shipping Company, put up $10 million in cash and a $40 million surety bond to secure its temporary release.

SPEEDBOATS AT NIGHT

For the first half of 2019 until mid-June of that year, says the Department of Justice, Penda conspired with others to engage in a bulk cocaine smuggling scheme. On multiple occasions during the MSC Gayane’s voyage and while at sea, crew members including Penda helped load bulk packages of cocaine onto the vessel from speedboats that approached the vessel in the middle of the night under cover of darkness.

Crewmembers 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. Crewmembers bent railings on the ship and pulled back doors on the shipping containers so they could fit the huge quantities of cocaine into the containers. After hiding the drugs among legitimate cargo, crew members used fake seals to reseal the shipping containers in which they had stashed the cocaine in order to disguise their clandestine activities and contraband.

Seven other crew members from the MSC Gayane involved in this smuggling scheme were arrested and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine based on their participation in the scheme. These crew members include 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.

“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 for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Jennifer Arbittier Williams. “The follow-up investigation uncovered dark-of-night, clandestine drug trafficking conduct which read like a movie plot, and prosecutors in our rffice 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.”

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