Historic cocaine bust saga right under Cape Region noses

July 12, 2019

In the dark of night on Sunday, June 16, one of the largest drug busts in United States history started to unfold just a few miles from Delaware’s beaches. Agents from U.S. Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), ferried on Coast Guard vessels, boarded the MSC Gayane midstream as her captain, aided by local river pilots, guided her into the entrance of Delaware Bay.

Agents ordered the vessel to be anchored at the southernmost anchorage in Delaware Bay, about eight miles north of Lewes near Brown Shoal. There, in an initial inspection of the ship’s containers, agents detected in seven shipping containers what are known in the business as anomalies. Something fishy. And enough to warrant further action.

The new day that dawned on Monday, June 17, found MSC Gayane underway once again on her way to the Packer Marine Terminal in Philadelphia where she had been bound. This time, however, she was escorted by Coast Guard vessels. When she reached Philadelphia in the late afternoon, the ship was met by a welcoming party of dozens of enforcement officials and drug-sniffing dogs. The suspected containers were moved to CBP’s centralized examination station where agents discovered about 17.5 tons of white-powder cocaine. “There were just bales and bales of coke,” said CBP spokesman Steve Sapp. “They were immediately visible upon opening the containers. They were still unloading cocaine well into the early hours of the next morning.”

In all, according to a press release issued a few days later by Sapp’s office, the action “netted an historic load of cocaine, the largest cocaine seizure in the 230-year history of US Customs and Customs and Border Protection, with an estimated weight of over 17.5 tons and a street value of about $1.1 billion.”

It’s believed the cocaine was brought aboard the vessel illegally as it made its way northward in open waters along the South American and Central American coasts toward a stop in the Bahamas and then toward Philadelphia. News reports speculate the cocaine was destined for ports in Europe for ultimate distribution. The ship’s final destination on this voyage was reported as Rotterdam, in the Netherlands.

The white power was packed in 2.2-pound bricks and bundled in bales of bricks. Sapp said every container on board the vessel was removed and scanned for drugs. Many of the containers not containing cocaine and headed for other U.S. ports were sent off to their ultimate destinations by other means. “We knew the vessel would be here for a while,” said Sapp. Some of the containers destined for other countries were placed back on board the ship.  

Vessel back at anchorage

Several crew members were interviewed and arrested on a wide variety of charges, and the investigation is continuing. Meanwhile, the Customs and Border Protection agency announced this week that it has seized the vessel - its largest seizure ever - and will keep it under its control until the whole matter is sorted out. “We have started a forfeiture process,” said CBP’s Sapp. “The company that owns the vessel has been notified, and we are now awaiting a response so negotiations can begin.” He said the ship was ordered back to the lower Delaware Bay anchorage near Brown Shoal with two masters aboard, where it will remain until negotiations regarding fines, forfeitures and penalties are complete.

Delaware State Police officers were involved in the operation along with the federal agencies. “At the request of the United States Customs and Border Protection, the Delaware State Police provided security assistance to board the vessel at Big Stone Beach Anchorage,” said Sgt. Richard Bratz, a DSP spokesman.

“The support provided by the Delaware State Police included our Maritime Unit and the Special Operations Response Team (SORT). The Aviation Unit was also used for any potential search and rescue missions as a precautionary measure. This was to ensure safe boarding by all law enforcement agents and a uniform security presence.

“The accomplishment of the multi-agency law enforcement team working together directly impacted the drug trade and resulted in this major seizure of cocaine. The Delaware State Police is proud to be a part of the mission to target and assist in the aggressive pursuit of drug organizations that threaten our communities.”

Sapp said DSP serves on the Homeland Security Investigations Border Enforcement Security Task Force. This task force consists of numerous local, state and federal law enforcement agencies from the Delaware Valley.

He added that river pilots were not briefed in advance of the multi-agency boarding due to operational security. “These operations are law enforcement sensitive and based on need to know. Midstream boardings include some element of risk for the boarding teams while transferring from small boat to ship, but otherwise these boardings are low-risk for crew, pilots and task force.”

At more than 1,000 feet long, Mediterranean Shipping Company’s MSC Gayane is among the world’s largest container ships. It’s part of a class of ships known as ULCVs - Ultra-Large Container Vessels.

Everything about these ships is large, including the fact that they have a capacity of more than 12,000 tractor-trailer-sized containers.

When they slip past our beaches inbound and outbound Delaware Bay - a regular occurrence here in Delaware’s Cape Region - they make for colorful mysteries. What goods from all parts of the world are being shipped to other parts of the world in those thousands of containers?

According to reports, many of the ‘anomalied’ containers on the MSC Gayane carried wine, paperboard, vegetable extracts and dried nuts.

Now we know they also carried much more.

“Because of our officers’ efforts, over $1 billion worth of dangerous narcotics was taken off the streets,” said Casey Durst, CBP’s director of Field Operations in Baltimore. “I have no doubt that our officers saved lives and significantly impacted transnational criminal organizations with this interception.” 

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