United States Attorney William M. McSwain announced that Aleksandar Kavaja, 27, of the Balkan country Montenegro, pleaded guilty before United States District Court Judge Harvey Bartle III to charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine on a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.
In 2019, Kavaja, a crew member who worked on board the shipping vessel MSC Gayane as the ship’s electrician, conspired with others to engage in bulk cocaine smuggling.
On multiple occasions during the MSC Gayane’s voyage at sea, crew members, including Kavaja, helped load huge quantities of cocaine onto the ship from speedboats that approached under cover of darkness, traveling at high speeds. Crew members used the Gayane’s crane to hoist cargo nets full of packaged cocaine onto the vessel and then stashed the drugs in various shipping containers.
On June 17, 2019, federal, state, and local law enforcement agents boarded the MSC Gayane when it arrived at Packer Marine Terminal in the Port of Philadelphia and seized approximately 20 tons of cocaine on the ship — with a street value of over $1 billion. This was one of the largest drug seizures in U.S. history.
“This momentous drug bust sent a clear message to criminals around the world that our city is not a safe harbor for their deadly drug trafficking,” said U.S. Attorney McSwain. “Prosecutors in my Office, in conjunction with our partner agencies, have been working non-stop for over a year to pursue justice in this case. And now another member of the conspiracy has been convicted and held accountable.”
“Protecting the Homeland against transnational crime is a top priority of Homeland Security Investigations,” said Brian A. Michael, Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations Philadelphia. “Mr. Kavaja’s guilty plea is yet another example of HSI, our law enforcement partners, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania working hand in hand to safeguard our community against transnational drug smuggling.”
“Mr. Kavaja’s guilty plea is the logical result from his participation in what remains a record cocaine seizure for CBP,” said Casey Durst, CBP’s Director of Field Operations in Baltimore. “Successful prosecutions reinforce the notion that suspects caught smuggling illegal drugs through our communities face severe, life-changing consequences.”
The defendant faces a maximum possible sentence of lifetime imprisonment.
The case is being investigated by United States Homeland Security Investigations and the United States Customs and Border Protection, together with a multi-agency team of federal, state, and local partners.