MSC Gayane crewmember provides details about the largest cocaine bust in US history

A Montenegrin ship’s electrician pled guilty yesterday to narcotics conspiracy charges, becoming the third crewmember from the MSC Gayane to admit their involvement in the US’s largest ever cocaine bust.

A record-breaking 20 tons of cocaine, worth $1.3bn, was seized on the 9,962 teu box ship at the Port of Philadelphia in June last year.

Aleksandar Kavaja, 27, told a federal judge yesterday he and three other crew mates aboard the MSC Gayane were recruited by drug smugglers in their native country before the ship set out on its journey.

Other crewmembers have said they were paid at least EUR50,000 ($55,000) to join in the smuggling effort, according to sealed court filings from last year obtained by The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The crew used burner phones to communicate with drug suppliers in South America and coordinated the loading of the drugs from speedboats that approached the cargo vessel several times under cover of night, the court documents reveal.

Court documents also allege that at least twice while the ship was en route between stops in Chile and Panama, numerous smaller boats approached the MSC Gayane at sea to hand off large bundles of the illicit drug.

The four crewmen recruited in Montenegro also persuaded other members of the crew mid-journey to help them load and conceal the drugs, Kavaja admitted yesterday.

“Using the ship’s crane, they pulled duffel bags filled with wrapped cocaine off the smaller boats and onto the Gayane’s deck before splitting the individual bricks among seven cargo containers carrying wine, vegetable extract, Chilean dried nuts, scrap metal, and other legitimate goods bound for Europe, Africa, and Asia,” the Inquirer reported.

The drugs on the MSC ship were meant to be bound for Rotterdam, authorities believe. In total, seven crewmewmbers – a mix of Montenegrins and Samoans – were detained in custody following the drugs bust. Kavaja and the two other men who have pled guilty so far face a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.
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