A cargo ship two city blocks long, on which nearly 20 tons of cocaine was hidden, and eventually found by federal agents in Philadelphia last month, will be held in U.S. custody for the foreseeable future.
The MSC Gayane will remain in Philadelphia waters after U.S. authorities seized the vessel July 4. The ship is anchored in the middle of the Delaware Bay, according to a law enforcement official and the ship's current GPS coordinates.
The official said it is in anchorage "while Customs and Border Protection continue the seizure process."
The historic drug seizure in June eventually grew in total size to 19.76 tons of brick cocaine — with an estimated value of $1.3 billion. It was the largest single seizure in the 230-year history of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the agency said.
Six crew members of the MSC Gayane have been charged for their alleged roles in bringing the tons of narcotics on board while the ship was traveling off the coast of Peru earlier this month.
U.S. Attorney William McSwain, the top federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, said seizure of the ship is part of the process to mete out punishment to all involved in the massive drug bust.
"A seizure of a vessel this massive is complicated and unprecedented — but it is appropriate because the circumstances here are also unprecedented," McSwain said in a statement. "When a vessel brings such an outrageous amount of deadly drugs into Philadelphia waters, my Office and our agency partners will pursue the most severe consequences possible against all involved parties in order to protect our district – and our country."
The Gayane is owned and operated by Mediterranean Shipping Co., which is headquartered in Europe but has an American headquarters in New York City and offices in several other U.S. ports.
A spokesman for MSC said the company had no immediate comment to the seizure announcement, but said in an email that "the US authorities took control of the vessel on 17/18 June so I am not sure what the new development is here."
In a statement following the seizure and arrests of several crew members, MSC said:
"Unfortunately, shipping and logistics companies are from time to time affected by trafficking problems. ... MSC is committed to working with authorities and industry groups worldwide to improve the security of the international supply chain and ensure that illegal practices are dealt with promptly and thoroughly by the relevant authorities."
Authorities first spotted "anomalies" while examining seven shipping containers aboard the MSC Gayane, a 1,030-foot Liberian-flagged vessel, in mid-June.
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.
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.
All six suspects are Samoan or Serbian. They have been identified as Ivan Durasevic, Nenad Ilic, Aleksandar Kavaia, Bosko Markovic, Laauli Pulu and Fonofaavae Tiasaga.
The ship's second mate, Durasevic, allegedly admitted to "his role in bringing the cocaine on board the vessel," a federal complaint released a day after the bust said.
It only identified the alleged roles of two of the six suspects.
Durasevic said he was paid $50,000 for his role in the conspiracy, according to court records.
Another crew member, 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.