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

One of them, a Montenegrin engineer, was sentenced to 6 years in federal prison Tuesday.

In this 2019 file photo, federal authorities search the MSC Gayane container ship at the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in South Philadelphia.
In this 2019 file photo, federal authorities search the MSC Gayane container ship at the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal in South Philadelphia.Read moreTim Tai / Staff Photographer

Federal prosecutors acknowledged for the first time Tuesday that eight crew members aboard an international shipping vessel detained at the Port of Philadelphia two years ago have admitted to smuggling a record-breaking 20-ton cocaine haul that investigators have described as one of the largest seized in U.S. history.

Though several men from the cargo ship, the MSC Gayane, have been in U.S. custody since authorities intercepted the drug shipment in June 2019, little has been released about their status or the ongoing efforts to trace the wider drug-trafficking network in which they played a small part.

News of the investigation has remained scarce even as it has spread out from South Philadelphia’s Packer Avenue Marine Terminal to Southern Europe and Central and South America. And, in an unusual turn, several defendants have pleaded guilty and been sentenced in proceedings that remain under court seal.

The news of the eight convictions emerged in court filings related to the sentencing Tuesday of one of the three MSC Gayane crewmen whose case has played out in public — Vladimir Penda, a 28-year-old Montenegrin and the ship’s engineer.

U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III sentenced him to five years and 10 months in prison after a hearing that revealed one reason for the secrecy surrounding the wider case.

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

Penda, who pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy charges and admitted he had been recruited by fellow countrymen aboard the ship to help load and hide the cocaine, told the judge he only did so for fear of what might happen should he refuse.

The drug shipment, his attorney Dennis E. Boyle said, had been organized by a violent Balkan gang with deep tentacles in the coastal community where Penda and many of the others grew up. And when a Montenegrin newspaper inaccurately reported last year that Penda was cooperating with the U.S. investigation, his family was forced to go into hiding, fearing retribution, Boyle said.

Families of other defendants have expressed similar fears of violence in emails to The Inquirer.

“These organizations are large, they’re powerful, they’re dangerous,” Boyle said in court Tuesday. “People are not free to simply walk away when they are asked to do something.”

Boyle did not identify a specific organization behind the drug haul and prosecutors balked at the contention that Penda only participated under duress. They noted he was paid 4,000 euro — or roughly $4,800 — for his efforts.

Still, court documents in his case and those of two other publicly charged crewmen nod to a wider criminal organization at work.

Aleksandr Kavaja, a 27-year-old ship’s electrician, told the court in September that he and at least three others had been recruited for the smuggling effort back in Montenegro.

The tiny nation — a tourist paradise of mountains and coastlines on the Adriatic Sea — has been riven by gang violence linked to the lucrative European drug trade for years.

Plagued by corruption, double-digit unemployment, and other social ills stemming from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Montenegro has become a prime recruiting ground for two lucrative trades.

Global shipping companies like the Mediterranean Shipping Co., the Switzerland-based conglomerate that owned the Gayane, employ an estimated 7,000 Montenegrins on vessels traversing the globe. Meanwhile, clans or organized criminals — many of them originating in the tourist town of Kotor — have emerged as primary players in the European cocaine trade.

The intersection of those two sectors of Montenegro’s economy have led to a series of recent eye-popping drug seizures aboard cargo vessels across the globe — the 20-ton Philadelphia bust, with an estimated street value of $1 billion, being among the largest.

Using contacts among drug suppliers in South America, Balkan drug traffickers have relied on their countrymen working aboard cargo ships to help move their product across the globe.

In the case of the Gayane, the charged crewmen have admitted to helping load the cocaine off speedboats that approached the ship under cover of darkness at several points during its journey between Panama and the Peruvian coast.

Those most involved in the plot used burner phones to coordinate with the drug suppliers on the mainland and recruited others, like Penda, to hide duffel bags filled with wrapped white bricks of cocaine into shipping containers carrying wine, vegetable extract, Chilean dried nuts, scrap metal, and other legitimate goods bound for Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Investigators believe the cocaine was ultimately bound for Rotterdam, Netherlands, but was intercepted in Philadelphia.

Penda, like many of those arrested, had struggled with money throughout his life. His father, a waiter in a hotel restaurant, and his mother, who ran a stand selling tchotchkes to tourists, relied on him to work odd jobs ranging from lifeguarding to welding throughout his formative years.

His job on the Gayane offered much-needed financial stability for the family. But the drug-smuggling conspirators offered a windfall — a lump sum for a few hours’ work that was more than he would normally make in a month.

“He had a choice, and he chose the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of drugs,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerome Maiatico said.

For his part, Penda acknowledged Tuesday that money had played a role in his decision. But seated next to his lawyer in a prison jumpsuit, he expressed hope that he could serve his prison term, rejoin his family in Montenegro, and once again become a productive citizen.

“Honor is something that is so hard to regain when it gets lost,” he said through a Serbian interpreter. “But in spite of everything, I believe in God, and I believe in second chances.”

The others who have pleaded guilty to playing a role in the smuggling effort, prosecutors said Tuesday, include the ship’s chief officer, Bosko Marcovic, 39; second officer Ivan Durasevic, 31; and engineer Nenad Ilic, 41 — all of Montenegro — as well as Stefan Bojevic, 29, of Serbia, and Fonofaavae Tiasaga, 29, and Laauli Pulu, 34, both of Samoa.

Tiasaga and Pulu were sentenced to five years in prison in hearings within the last six months, according to court dockets unsealed late Tuesday. Records in many of the other cases remain under seal.