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Seven years in prison for chief mate of cargo vessel where Philly feds found record 20 tons of cocaine

Bosko Markovic, 39, of Montenegro, was promised a windfall of more than $1 million to oversee the smuggling and hiding of the narcotics aboard the ship, prosecutors said.

Federal authorities search the MSC Gayane container ship at the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in South Philadelphia on June 18, 2019.
Federal authorities search the MSC Gayane container ship at the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in South Philadelphia on June 18, 2019.Read moreTim Tai / Staff Photographer

The chief mate of an international shipping vessel aboard which federal authorities at the Port of Philadelphia seized a record-breaking 20 tons of cocaine in 2019 expected to be paid more than $1 million for overseeing the smuggling effort, federal prosecutors said.

That disclosure — a rare glimpse of the economics behind what customs officials have described as one of the largest drug busts in U.S. history — came Thursday as a federal judge sentenced Bosko Markovic to seven years in prison instead.

Markovic, 39, of Montenegro, was the most senior crewman aboard the MSC Gayane arrested by federal authorities after an investigation that has spanned from the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal to the Balkans, the South American coast, and mainland Europe. He pleaded guilty to drug-trafficking conspiracy charges last year.

And while some of the seven other charged crewmen, many of whom Markovic recruited into the conspiracy while the Gayane was at sea, have since disclosed how much money they expected to be paid by the Balkan drug traffickers financing the illicit shipment, all of the amounts cited in court filings — roughly $50,000 to $60,000 per participant — have been significantly less than the payday Markovic had been offered.

“His role was necessary,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerome Maiatico said. “A smuggling scheme of this magnitude would likely not have been possible without the [Gayane’s] chief officer in on the scheme.”

Still, as prosecutors portrayed it in court Thursday, the sizable windfall Markovic hoped to receive was nothing compared with the estimated $1 billion that U.S. authorities say the traffickers behind the effort could have made had their cocaine reached its intended destination: the streets of Europe.

» READ MORE: Eight crewmen have pleaded guilty as probe continues into a record 20-ton cocaine bust on a Philly ship

Addressing U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III in court, Markovic and his attorney, Benjamin Brait Cooper, laid out a tale similar to those shared by the other members of the Gayane’s crew who have been sentenced so far to prison terms ranging from two to six years.

Like them, he had grown up in a coastal Montenegrin community known for two primary industries — the thousands of crewmen it provides to international shipping companies and the violent narcotics gangs that oversee smuggling routes to much of Europe.

Like four of the others, he said he was approached in the Balkans, before the Gayane had even embarked on its 2019 voyage by the traffickers looking to recruit him. The $1 million-plus price tag they were offering far surpassed his annual salary of roughly $108,000 a year.

And as the ship’s chief mate — responsible for, as his attorney described it, overseeing “pretty much everything” to do with the Gayane’s daily operations — Markovic was in a key position to ensure that the loading of the drugs in secret went off as planned and that the illicit cargo went undetected as the Gayane made its way from port to port.

» READ MORE: Just how much is 20 tons of cocaine?

Using phones he had been given in advance, he coordinated with the cocaine’s suppliers in South America to secretly load the duffel bags filled with white bricks from the speedboats that approached the Gayane under the cover of darkness at several points during its journey between Panama and the Peruvian coast.

He recruited other crew members to hide the drugs in shipping containers carrying cargo like wine, vegetable extract, Chilean dried nuts, scrap metal, and other legitimate goods bound for Europe, Africa, and Asia.

But when U.S. authorities intercepted the ship as it pulled into Philadelphia on its way to Rotterdam, the Netherlands, it was Markovic and his fellow crewmates who were left to pay the price.

“Although Mr. Markovic was the chief officer, his role in the offense was rather similar to everyone else who participated in this,” said Cooper. “He was recruited.”

Neither Cooper nor prosecutors specifically identified by whom.

Though federal authorities have said the investigation into the suppliers and financiers behind the smuggling effort continues, the details of that probe remain tightly guarded.

Up until earlier this year, the cases against many of the Gayane crewmen remained under court seal. And one of the men — Vladimir Penda, 28, who is serving a six-year sentence for his involvement — maintained at his sentencing in April that he only agreed to participate for fear of what the Balkan gangs that recruited him might do to him or his family if he refused.

When a Montenegrin newspaper inaccurately reported last year that Penda had agreed to cooperate with the U.S. investigation, his family fled their home fearing retribution from the traffickers, Penda’s attorney said at the time.

Markovic made no mention, either, of the organization that hired him when it came time Thursday for him to address the judge.

Instead, speaking in a deep, thickly accented English, he said he regretted his involvement and dreamed of returning to Montenegro once his prison term was complete.

“The only thing I have left is hope,” he said. “Hope that I can look into the future and see my own family soon — and start a family of my own.”