MSC Gayane Crew Member Pleads Guilty to Cocaine Trafficking Stemming from One of the Largest Drug Seizures in U.S. History

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Cranes unload the freight ship MSC Gayane, after US authorities seized more than 16 tons of cocaine at the Packer Marine Terminal in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on June 18, 2019. (DOMINICK REUTER/AFP via Getty Images)

MSC Gayane Crew Member Pleads Guilty to Cocaine Trafficking Stemming from One of the Largest Drug Seizures in U.S. History

Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of Pennsylvania; Monday, June 15, 2020

PHILADELPHIA – United States Attorney William M. McSwain announced that Vladimir Penda, 27, of the country of Montenegro, entered a plea of guilty before 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.

In 2019, 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 bulk cocaine smuggling. 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.

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 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.

“Federal agents found nearly 20 tons of cocaine hidden on this ship when it arrived in the port of Philadelphia in June 2019,” said U.S. Attorney McSwain. “Over the past year, prosecutors in my Office, in conjunction with our partner agencies, have been working non-stop to pursue justice in this case in order to protect our district and our country. We want to send a strong message to criminals around the world that Philadelphia is not a safe harbor for their deadly drug trafficking.”

“Mr. Penda’s guilty plea is a testament to Homeland Security Investigations commitment to holding all those involved in the transnational drug smuggling investigation aboard the MSC Gayane accountable,” said Brian A. Michael, Special Agent in Charge for HSI Philadelphia. “HSI, in collaboration with CBP, the Coast Guard, and our other federal, state and local law enforcement partners, are committed to the detection and disruption of transnational drug smuggling, and will continue to work in concert with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to keep our communities safe.”

“Mr. Penda’s plea agreement reinforces the notion that there are severe consequences for trafficking large amounts of dangerous drugs, such as this record-breaking cocaine seizure, into our communities,” said Casey Durst, CBP’s Director of Field Operations in Baltimore. “Customs and Border Protection remains steadfast on our nation’s borders, and arm-in-arm with our federal, state and local law enforcement partners, to protect our communities.”

The defendant 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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