Another crew member pleads guilty in MSC Gayane coke 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 is said to have a street value of about $1.3 billion

United States Attorney William M. McSwain today announced that Aleksandar Kavaja, 27, a national of Montenegro, pleaded guilty before United States District Court Judge Harvey Bartle III to 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.

The guilty plea is the latest development in a story that first made the headlines when, on June 17, 2019, federal, state, and local law enforcement agents boarded the containership 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.

Another crew member, Vladimir Penda, 27, also a national of Montenegro, entered a plea of guilty to a similar charge back in June.

The Department of Justice says that, in 2019, Kavaja, who worked on board the containership MSC Gayane as the ship’s electrician, conspired with others to engage in bulk cocaine smuggling. On multiple occasions during the MSC Gayane’s voyage, crew members, including Kavaja, helped load huge quantities of cocaine onto the ship 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 packaged cocaine onto the vessel and then stashed the drugs in various shipping containers.

On June 17, 2019, federal, state, and local law enforcement agents boarded the MSC Gayane when it arrived at Packer Marine Terminal in the Port of Philadelphia and seized approximately 20 tons of cocaine on the ship — with a street value of over $1 billion. This was one of the largest drug seizures in U.S. history.

“Mr. Kavaja’s guilty plea is the logical result from his participation in what remains a record cocaine seizure for CBP,” said Casey Durst, CBP’s Director of Field Operations in Baltimore. “Successful prosecutions reinforce the notion that suspects caught smuggling illegal drugs through our communities face severe, life-changing consequences.”

Kavaja faces a maximum possible sentence of lifetime imprisonment.

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

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