Bosko Markovic began working for ocean carrier Mediterranean Shipping Co. (MSC) in 2008. Over the next 11 years, the Montenegrin worked his way up to the position of chief mate, second in command behind the master, with an annual salary of $108,000.
That wasn’t enough money for him, according to prosecutors from the U.S Department of Justice.
“Motivated by profit and greed,” they said, Markovic attempted to use his management role aboard the container ship MSC Gayane to help pull off one of the largest and most audacious drug-smuggling operations in history.
‘Astronomical’ quantity of drugs
Markovic and three other conspirators from Montenegro boarded the vessel and recruited four additional seafarers. That brought the drug gang to eight, more than a third of the crew of 22.
Markovic, who had a lead role in the smuggling operation on the ship, as well as the three others he came aboard with, communicated with co-conspirators on land using special “narco phones.”
The MSC Gayane was met by speedboats at night on multiple occasions off the coast of South America during a voyage in 2019. The eight members of the smuggling ring loaded duffel bags full of cocaine bricks onto the vessel using the ship’s crane. Markovic, as chief mate, was in charge of the cargo plan, and picked seven specific containers full of legitimate cargo to hide the cocaine in. Fake seals were used to reseal the boxes.
When authorities raided the ship upon its arrival at Packer Marine Terminal in Philadelphia on June 17, 2019, they found 20 tons of cocaine aboard. “This was the largest cocaine seizure in the 230-year history of U.S. Customs and Border Protection [CBP],” said prosecutors, adding, “The sheer quantity of drugs involved in this case is astronomical.”
To put the scope of the bust in perspective, the MSC Gayane is a 2018-built “Neopanamax”-class container ship with a capacity of 11,600 twenty-foot-equivalent units that is leased to MSC and owned by a fund linked to J.P. Morgan. It is currently valued at around $100 million. The seized cocaine was valued at $1 billion — 10 times more than the ship.
Cocaine found aboard the MSC Gayane in 2019 (Photos: Justice Department sentencing memorandum)
5 crew sentenced so far
All eight conspirators pleaded guilty. Markovic was sentenced most recently, on Thursday. Prosecutors said during the hearing that Markovic expected to be paid more than $1 million for his role overseeing the smuggling operation, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Markovic received a sentence of seven years, the longest handed down so far in the case. MSC asserted in a letter filed in the Markovic docket, “The Gayane incident is an undeserved and unwanted stain on [the employees’] record. The company and everyone in it are victims.”
As previously reported by American Shipper, Vladimir Penda, the ship’s fourth engineer, was sentenced to five years and 10 months on April 13. Penda was one of the crew members recruited on board; his sole role was assisting to haul the drugs from the crane to the containers.
Recently unsealed court records reveal that five of the eight members of the MSC Gayane drug gang have now been sentenced.
The two Samoan crew members, who were recruited while on board and helped move the cocaine, were sentenced before Penda, when their dockets were under seal. Laauli Pula, ordinary seaman, and Fonofaavae Tiasaga, able seaman, both received five-year prison terms at a hearing on Jan. 19.
Another crew member, Serbian Stefan Bojevic, the assistant reeferman, was sentenced to five years on March 2, at a time when his docket was sealed.
The latest judgement on Markovic brings the total MSC Gayane sentences to just under 28 years.
There are three sentences remaining, for Montenegrins Ivan Durasevic, second mate; Nenad Ilic, engineer cadet; and Aleksandar Kavaja, electrician. Durasevic and Ilic are scheduled to be sentenced on July 7, Kavaja on Aug. 2. Based on past prison terms, the aggregate crew sentences will exceed four decades and could approach five decades.
Ship bust skews nationwide numbers
The unprecedented nature of the MSC Gayane seizure was highlighted in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment report, released in March. The DEA said that reported nationwide cocaine seizures in 2019 surged 70% versus 2018, to 45,241 kilograms from 26,585 kilograms the year before.
(Chart by American Shipper based on data from DEA)
But according to the DEA, “The increase is primarily attributed to the record seizure of 17,928 kilograms from cargo containers on the MSC Gayane in Philadelphia [that were] destined for Antwerp, Belgium. Excluding that seizure, nationwide CBP seizures increased a little less than 3% from 2018.”
In other words, virtually all of America’s year-on-year increase in coke seizures in 2019 was driven by a single event: the MSC Gayane drug bust.
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