Feds Nab $1 Billion in Cocaine at Philadelphia Port

By Paul Gaita 06/21/19

Federal agents seized more than 30,000 pounds of cocaine on the ship. 

Philadelphia Port

Federal agents boarded a cargo vessel docked at Philadelphia's Packer Marine Terminal on June 18 and seized more than 30,000 pounds, or 16.5 tons of cocaine, which authorities described as one of the largest drug seizures in United States history.

Two members of the ship's crew, including the second mate, were arrested and face federal charges of conspiracy to possess cocaine aboard a ship. The seizure and arrests come on the heels of a similar bust in March 2019, where an approximate 3,200 pounds of cocaine were discovered in a shipping container at the Port of New York/Newark. Customs and Border Protection described that apprehension as the second largest cocaine seizure at that port and the largest in 25 years.

An affidavit obtained by the Associated Press noted that the cargo ship, the MSC Gayane, sails under the flag of Liberia and originated from Chile before traveling through Panama, the Bahamas, Peru and Colombia prior to its arrival in Philadelphia. The document alleged that crew members told government agents that they assisted in loading the cocaine while at sea off the west coast of South America. The crew members also alleged that several ship employees helped to transfer bales of cocaine from 14 boats on two separate occasions. 

As People noted, federal agents began the bust on Monday (June 17), shortly after the MSC Gayane had arrived in Philadelphia, but the actual search of the vessel began on the following day. The 16.5 tons of cocaine were transported to an undisclosed federal facility for further investigation. All media reports noted that additional drug seizures and arrests may be forthcoming.

The ship's parent company, MSC Mediterranean Shipping Co., issued a statement in regard to the incident, which noted that it "took the matter seriously and is grateful to the authorities for identifying any suspected abuse of its services," as well as its "longstanding history of cooperating with U.S. federal law enforcement agencies to help disrupt illegal narcotics trafficking," including U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

William M. McSwain, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, praised the law enforcement agencies' actions in a Twitter post.

"While the investigation is ongoing, I want to thank all our federal, state and local partners for your incredible work so far in this investigation," he wrote. "This amount of cocaine could kill millions—MILLIONS—of people. My office is committed to keeping our borders secure and streets safe from deadly narcotics."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.