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MSC Gayane Crew Member Sentenced to 5+ Years for Conspiracy to Smuggle $1 Billion Worth of Cocaine into the United States

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 PHILADELPHIA – Acting United States Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams announced today that Vladimir Penda, 27, of Montenegro, was sentenced to five years and ten months in prison, and two years of supervised release by United States District Court Judge Harvey Bartle III, 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. 

For the first half of 2019 until mid-June of that year, Penda, a crew member who worked on board the shipping vessel MSC Gayane as the ship’s fourth engineer, 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. Crew members 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. Crew members 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.

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 about 20 tons of cocaine worth over $1 billion U.S. dollars from its shipping containers in one of the largest drug seizures in U.S. history.

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 Williams. “The follow-up investigation uncovered dark-of-night, clandestine drug trafficking conduct which read like a movie plot, and prosecutors in our Office 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.”

“Let today’s sentencing serve as a reminder that 2 years ago this June, Mr. Penda and his coconspirators attempted to smuggle close to 20 tons of cocaine, with an estimated street value of $1 billion dollars through the port of Philadelphia.  This sends a clear message to criminals around the world that our critical infrastructure is not a safe harbor for drug trafficking,” said Brian A. Michael, Special Agent in Charge for Homeland Security Investigations Philadelphia. “Protecting the Homeland against transnational crime is a top priority of Homeland Security Investigations, and together with our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners, we are committed to detecting and disrupting transnational drug smuggling.”

“The many successful prosecutions following CBP’s record-setting cocaine seizure of June 2019 should serve as a reminder to those willing to help drug trafficking organizations that narcotics smuggling has very serious consequences,” said Keith Fleming, Acting Director of Field Operations for CBP’s Baltimore Field Office. “Customs and Border Protection and our law enforcement partners remain steadfast in our commitment to intercept shipments of dangerous drugs before they can be smuggled through our nation’s borders.”

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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