Sailor Pleads Guilty in Record-Setting Bust Aboard Cocaine Ship

A citizen of Montenegro pleaded guilty to conspiring with at least seven other crew members aboard a cargo ship to hauling more than 20 tons of cocaine. They were busted after stopping in Philadelphia in 2019.

A crew member of the now-infamous cocaine ship that arrived at the Port of Philadelphia last year carrying a record $1 billion worth of the drug pleaded guilty, the U.S. Attorney for Eastern Pennsylvania said Monday.

Vladimir Penda, 27, who is a citizen of the Balkan nation Montenegro, faces at least 10 years in federal prison for his role in a smuggling scheme aboard the MSC Gayane busted in June 2019.

Federal prosecutors said Penda's guilty plea filing that he and "at least seven other crew members" conspired to smuggle some 20 tons of cocaine onboard the massive container ship while en route between South American and Caribbean ports and the Port of Philadelphia. The ship's final destinations were in Europe.

Other subsequent convictions are expected, a law enforcement source said, but there is no timeline currently.

Sources told NBC10 at the time of the bust in 2019 that the cocaine was not meant for Philadelphia but instead for the Netherlands and France.

All told, the ship contained more than 15,500 kilograms of the drug. Six crew members were arrested at the time. It was the largest bust in the 230-year history of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol arm of the Department of Homeland Security.

Cranes unload the freight ship MSC Gayane, after US authorities seized more than 16 tons of cocaine at the Packer Marine Terminal in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on June 18, 2019. (DOMINICK REUTER/AFP via Getty Images)

It is believed to be the second-biggest seizure of cocaine in American history, behind only a 1989 cache seized in Los Angeles.

The massive bust came just three months after another huge, though not nearly as large in scale, bust occurred at the Port of Philadelphia. In March 2019, 537 kilograms of cocaine were found aboard the MSC Desiree. That container ship was traveling from Colombia to Europe, according to law enforcement sources.

Prosecutors wrote in Penda's plea memorandum, which was filed June 15, that he was recruited by other crew members to take part in the smuggling scheme. Penda served as fourth engineer aboard the ship.

"On multiple occasions during the MSC Gayane’s voyage at sea, crew members, including Penda, helped load bulk cocaine onto the vessel from speedboats that approached under cover of darkness, traveling at high speeds," the U.S. Attorney's office said in a statement. "Crew members used the Gayane’s crane to hoist cargo nets full of cocaine onto the vessel and then stashed the drugs in various shipping containers."

Penda remains in federal custody pending sentencing.

The U.S. government said Monday that it seized the cargo ship MSC Gayane as part of its investigation into cocaine smuggling on the ship.

The MSC Gayane, owned by J.P. Morgan and operated by Mediterranean Shipping Co., which is headquartered in Europe but has an American headquarters in New York City, was seized by the U.S. government July 4, 2019. It was eventually released to the company after a $50 million bond was posted.

It is currently traveling in the Caribbean Sea en route from Chile to Portugal, according to VesselFinder.

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