On a cloudy evening on June 16, the MSC Gayane was making its way into Delaware Bay for a stopover at the Port of Philadelphia when it was intercepted by boats carrying about a dozen armed U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other federal agents.
Customs officers escorted the 1,031-foot-long ship, part of a Mediterranean Shipping Co. fleet that handles a significant share of the world’s seaborne trade, to the port in South Philadelphia, and early the next morning seven of the boxes were X-rayed and opened to reveal “bales and bales of cocaine,” according to U.S. officials.
It took about a week to weigh and document the bricks. In all, they weighed 39,525 pounds—nearly 20 tons. The haul, with an estimated street value of $1.3 billion, was the largest drug seizure in the 230-year history of the U.S. customs agency and one of the biggest ever by American authorities.
It was the result of what shipping executives say is a growing trend in drug transport. Smugglers who have long used small planes, speed boats, trucks and other transport have grown bolder about stuffing large amounts of narcotics into commercial distribution shipping networks, trusting that illicit cargo won’t raise alarms in the enormous stream of goods moving between countries.
In February, customs agents seized 1.6 tons of cocaine on the MSC Carlotta at Port Newark in New Jersey. Then in March, authorities found 1,200 pounds of cocaine aboard the MSC Desiree at the Port of Philadelphia.
Shipping executives say the ship’s role in one of the few South American services connecting to Europe likely drew the interest of smugglers. The route and the earlier busts raised alarms for law-enforcement authorities.
MSC, the world’s second-biggest container-ship operator by capacity, faces big losses after paying $50 million in cash and bond to release the vessel after it was held for nearly a month.
The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania says it plans to seek permanent forfeiture of the ship, which is less than two years old and worth an estimated $90 million.
An MSC spokesman said the firm wasn’t the target of any probe. The company said it chooses its crews from a pool of seafarers that have been vetted by U.S. authorities and given special visas.
Following the bust, the carrier said it was adding security guards on ships sailing from the western coast of South America, adding closed-circuit cameras on its vessels and implementing cabin checks on board to ensure workers don’t have contraband container seals or other evidence of drug smuggling.