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Jail Sentence for First of MSC Gayane Crew in Cocaine Smuggling Case

jail sentance for cocaine smuggling
Law enforcement found the containers stuffed with the smuggled cocaine (U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo)

Published Apr 13, 2021 5:33 PM by The Maritime Executive

The first of seven crewmembers from the MSC Gayane was sentenced to jail today for his role in the 2019 cocaine smuggling aboard the containership. A total of eight crewmembers, or nearly a third of the vessel’s crew, have all plead guilty and are awaiting sentencing in one of the largest drug seizures in U.S. history. 

The ship’s fourth engineer, Vladimir Penda, 27, of Montenegro, who the defense alleged was recruited while aboard the ship and scared into his participation, plead guilty in the conspiracy case in June 2020. He was sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia to five years and ten months in prison to be followed by two years of supervised release. Given the scale of the seizure, Penda faced a maximum possible sentence of life in prison with prosecutors recommending 14 years. Three of his co-defendants are also due to be sentenced.

On June 17, 2019, U.S. federal, state, and local law enforcement agents boarded the MSC Gayane when it arrived at Packer Marine Terminal in Philadelphia. After searching the vessel, they seized about 20 tons of cocaine worth over $1 billion from its shipping containers in one of the largest drug seizures in U.S. history.

According to the sentencing documents, Penda had been working aboard the vessel since the beginning of 2019 as the ship’s fourth engineer and conspired with his fellow crew to engage in a bulk cocaine smuggling scheme. While the MSC Gayane was at sea, crew members including Penda helped load bulk packages of cocaine onto the vessel from speedboats that approached the containership during the night under cover of darkness. They used the vessel’s crane to hoist cargo nets full of cocaine onto the vessel and then stashed the cocaine in the shipping containers. The prosecutors alleged that the crew bent railings on the ship and pulled back doors on the shipping containers so they could stuff the huge quantities of cocaine into the containers. After hiding the drugs among the legitimate cargo, crewmembers used fake seals to reseal the shipping containers.

“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.”

In addition to Penda, seven other crewmembers from the MSC Gayane involved in the smuggling scheme were arrested and later plead guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine. Among the individuals awaiting sentencing for their role are the ship’s chief officer and second officer. Others in the scheme included an engineer cadet, electrician, assistant reeferman, and two seamen.

MSC has not been charged in connection with the smuggling and entered a victim’s statement during the sentencing of Penda. MSC said that over the two years since the Gayane incident, it has spent tens of millions of dollars to boost its anti-smuggling systems and by 2024 it will have invested more than $100 million on security improvements.