MSC Gayane fourth engineer pleads guilty in cocaine bust case

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 was said to have a street value of about $1.3 billion [CBP Photograph]

Vladimir Penda, 27, a national of Montenegro, yesterday entered a plea of guilty in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania 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.

In 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Penda, who was serving as fourth engineer on board the containership MSC Gayane, conspired with others to engage in bulk cocaine smuggling.

Yesterday’s plea is the most recent development in a story that first made the headlines when, on June 17, 2019, federal, state, and local law enforcement agents boarded the MSC Gayane when it arrived at Packer Marine Terminal in Philadelphia and seized 19.76 tons of cocaine.

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.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “on multiple occasions during the MSC Gayane’s voyage at sea, crew members, including Penda, helped load bulk cocaine onto the vessel from speedboats that approached under cover of darkness, traveling at high speeds. Crew members used the Gayane’s crane to hoist cargo nets full of cocaine onto the vessel and then stashed the drugs in various shipping containers.

Penda faces a maximum possible sentence of lifetime imprisonment.

The case is being investigated by Homeland Security Investigations and the United States Customs and Border Protection, together with a multi-agency team of federal, state, and local partners.

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