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Last man of ship's crew busted in colossal €1.5 billion Kinahan-linked coke haul jailed in the US

The €1.5 billion seizure was the largest in the history of the US Customs and Border Protection agency

The MSC Gayane

Neil Fetherstonhaugh and Eamon Dillon

A man who was last member of the crew of a cargo ship busted with a colossal 20 tons of cocaine destined for European drugs gang including the Kinahan cartel has been jailed in the United States.

Ship’s electrician Aleksandar Kavaja (28) was sentenced to more than seven years in prison after the €1.5 billion haul, the largest in the history of the US Customs and Border Protection agency, in Philadelphia in 2019.

He was on board the giant cargo ship MSC Gayane that had been destined for the Netherlands before it was searched by officials in the Port of Philadelphia where it had docked in July of that year.

He was jailed on Tuesday after telling a federal judge he had no choice but to participate or risk death at the hands of a murderous cartel.

He claimed that five days before he set sail on the MSC Gayane, a man cornered him at a café in Montenegro. The stranger did not give his name but told Kavaja he knew who he was and where his family lived.

The electrician was handed a cellphone and told that once at sea, he should use it to coordinate with cocaine suppliers in South America, who would meet the ship on its journey.

And then he left just as mysteriously as he had arrived, pausing only to impart a threatening warning: “You’re going to work for us now.”

“What were his choices?” Kavaja’s attorney, Andres Jalon, asked in court Tuesday. “If he doesn’t get on the boat or goes to the authorities, he’s going to get killed. If he refuses to cooperate while they’re at sea, he’s going to get thrown over the side.”

Eight members of the ship’s crew are now serving prison terms, while the men ultimately responsible for the smuggling effort are believed to remain free and are unknown to authorities.

However, details of the highly-sophisticated smuggling operation emerged as the other crew members who took in the part in operation were sentenced for their roles.

At the time of the 2019 bust Assistant Garda Commissioner John O’Driscoll told the Sunday World they were liaising with US authorities over the seizure.

The huge load of cocaine had been funded by European crime gangs working together to ship the drugs across the Atlantic.

The second-in-command of the ship Bosko Markovic had been a key player after arriving on board with three co-conspirators and recruiting four more from the total crew of 22.

The Montenegrin had worked for the shipping company since 2008, moving up the management chain to the position of chief mate.

He had been promised a million dollars for his services to get and hide the bricks of cocaine on board while still at sea, according to the US Department of Justice.

Using an encrypted phone to contact conspirators on land, 20 speed boats delivered the drugs to the MSC Gayane off the coast of Peru as it travelled from Chile, via the Panama Canal onto Philadelphia.

The other gang members on-board helped off-load the illegal cargo which they hid in seven containers selected by Markovic and then closed with fake seals.

The legitimate cargo in the containers included wine, paper and nuts and were destined for a number of countries including Ireland.

After their arrests in Philadelphia all eight crew members involved in the plot pleaded guilty.

Markovic last week got a sentence of seven years, the longest handed down so far in the case.

Vladimir Penda, the ship’s fourth engineer, was sentenced to five years and 10 months on April 13.

Penda was one of the crew members recruited on board and helped to move the drugs from the crane to the containers.

"The follow-up investigation uncovered dark-of-night, clandestine drug trafficking conduct which read like a movie plot, and prosecutors in our office have been working non-stop since then to pursue justice in this case," Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams said during Penda’s hearing.

“The many successful prosecutions following CBP’s record-setting cocaine seizure of June 2019 should serve as a reminder to those willing to help drug trafficking organizations that narcotics smuggling has very serious consequences,” said a customs spokesman in statement.

The two Samoan crew members, who were recruited while on board and helped move the cocaine, were sentenced before Penda.

Laauli Pula, ordinary seaman, and Fonofaavae Tiasaga, able seaman, both received five-year prison terms at a hearing on Jan. 19.

Another crew member, Serbian Stefan Bojevic was sentenced to five years on March 2.

In August, Ivan Durasevic (31) and Nenad Ilic (41) both of Montenegro, were sentenced Monday by federal Judge Harvey Bartle III, on charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine on a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.

Durasevic was sentenced to six and a half years in prison, and Ilic was sentenced to seven years in prison.

The Drugs Enforcement Agency said nationwide cocaine seizures in 2019 surged 70% compared to 2018, to 45,241 kilos from 26,585 kilos as a result of the seizure.

“The increase is primarily attributed to the record seizure of 17,928 kilograms from cargo containers on the MSC Gayane in Philadelphia destined for Antwerp, Belgium.”

The DEA previously compiled a dossier on the European gangs co-operating to organise super-sized cocaine shipments to Europe.

This included many of Daniel Kinahan’s wedding guests such as Dutch criminal currently on trial Ridouan Taghi, and recently convicted Ricardo Riquelme Vega, aka El Rico.

Wedding guests, Italian Camorra boss Raffaele Imperiale and Edin Gacanin, a senior member of the Montenegrin Tito and Dino Cartel, were also named by the DEA as part of the same conglomerate.

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