US: MSC Gayane crewman gets 5+ years in prison for smuggling cocaine

A crew member of containership MSC Gayane was sentenced to more than five years in prison for attempting to smuggle cocaine worth over $1 billion into the United States two years ago.

Kees Torn on Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

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, Acting United States Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams announced on 13 April 2021

For the first half of 2019 until mid-June of that year, Penda, who worked on board the Neopanamax vessel MSC Gayane as the ship’s fourth engineer, conspired with others to engage in a bulk cocaine smuggling scheme.

MSC Gayane
Illustration. Image by Kees Torn on Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

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. The seafarers 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 the 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.

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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.

“It has been nearly two years since federal agents conducted one of the largest drug seizures in U.S. history,” Acting U.S. Attorney Williams said.

“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,” Brian A. Michael, Special Agent in Charge for Homeland Security Investigations Philadelphia, commented.

 “This sends a clear message to criminals around the world that our critical infrastructure is not a safe harbor for drug trafficking.”

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.