Billion-Dollar Philadelphia Cocaine Bust Largest in US Customs History

Some crew members allegedly brought the massive cache aboard while at sea, and were paid $50,000 each for their efforts, according to a federal complaint.

What to Know

  • The massive cache of drugs could be worth $1 billion, and would be the largest ever in the region, the U.S. Attorney said.
  • Federal agents were seen Tuesday afternoon boarding a ship, the MSC Gayane, which was docked at the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal.
  • 15,000 kilos of cocaine equals more than 16 tons of the illegal drug.

A massive $1.1 billion cocaine bust at the Philadelphia seaport earlier this week was the largest such seizure in the 230-history of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, officials said Friday.

Just one quarter of the drugs seized were put on display at a news conference Friday in the United States Customs House in the city's historic district.

If the cocaine bricks discovered by officials had all been lined up in a row, they would have stretched more than two miles, officials said.

"I have no doubt that our officers saved lives and significantly impacted transnational criminal organizations," Casey Durst, U.S. Customs and Border Protection director of field operations in Baltimore, Maryland, said.

Six people were arrested and charged with violating federal narcotic smuggling laws, authorities said. They each face life in prison, according to U.S. Attorney William McSwain.

None of those arrested are American citizens, McSwain added.

An investigation remains ongoing.

Authorities first spotted "anamolies" while examining seven shipping containers aboard the MSC Gayane, a 1,030-foot Liberian-flagged vessel, Sunday night.

Monday afternoon, officials uncovered more than 17.5 tons of cocaine, including 15,582 bricks weighing more than 35,000 pounds. 

Sources told NBC10 the cocaine was not meant for Philadelphia but instead for the Netherlands and France. 

"There were doses enough for two million different individuals," said James W. Carroll Jr., director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. "This could have killed thousands, and maybe millions, of people."

The bust occurred at the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal Port on the Delaware River in South Philadelphia. In addition to cocaine, containers were filled with wine, paperboard, vegetable extracts and dried nuts from all over the world.

They were destined for Ireland, Nigeria, South Africa, Lebanon, India and Haiti, officials said.

Records show the MSC Gayane previously stopped in the Bahamas on June 13, Panama on June 9 and May 24, and Colombia on May 19. 

Officials with Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement of the Department of Homeland Security, as well as the Drug Enforcement Administration are involved in the investigation, which one official described as "massive."

The ship's second mate, identified as Ivan Durasevic, allegedly admitted to "his role in bringing the cocaine onboard the vessel," a federal complaint said.

Durasevic said he was paid $50,000 for his role in the conspiracy, according to court records.

Another crew member, identified as Fonofaavae Tiasaga, also allegedly admitted to partaking in loading cocaine on the ship, including on a previous voyage, the complaint said.

At least twice while the ship was en route between stops in Chile and Panama, numerous smaller boats approached the Gayane at sea to hand off large bundles of cocaine, according to the complaint.

None of the crew other than Durasevic and Tiasaga have been identified.

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