It’s been 140 days since the second largest drug bust in American history went down in the waters off-shore of the Port of Philadelphia. Agents from a multi-agency Federal task force swarmed aboard a two block-long container ship, the MSC GAYANE, the second largest in the world.
It marked the beginning of Containergate.
They found 20 tons of cocaine sprawled across seven individual shipping containers. It was a truly massive amount, the largest single seizure in the 230-year history of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the agency said.
There was so much cocaine that only one-fourth of the haul could be crammed into the lobby of the venerable old U.S. Custom House of Philadelphia where federal authorities unveiled the results of the big bust.
“This is a massive, stunning amount of cocaine,” U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain enthused. “One of the largest drug seizures in United States history. This volume of cocaine could kill millions – MILLIONS – of people.”
Were American lives saved by U.S. Atty McSwain’s efforts? They were not. His logic is specious. Some remember that when the U.S. Government successfully targeted and took down Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel, the result was that cocaine became neither more costly nor more difficult to obtain.
In the vernacular of the times, it was a nothing burger.
From Watergate to Russiagate… Le plus ca change?
Already at this early stage in the investigation, one fact sticks out. The 20-ton drug move was an act of desperation.It’s like pushing all your chips onto the table and betting on red. It was not a wise, not a particularly rational play.
Somebody needed a lot of money, and fast. Which reminded me of something that happened during Watergate.
On July 1, 1972, ten days after the arrest of the burglars in the Watergate Complex, the TV series Bewitched aired its final episode, Attorney General John Mitchell resigned as chairman of Richard Nixon’s re-election committee, and lifelong CIA pilot Barry Seal was arrested in New Orleans for conspiracy to illegally export enough C4 plastic explosive to Mexico to blow the island of Cuba halfway up the Florida Keys.
Reporters called it the Mexican Connection. It was how Richard Nixon raised the several millions of dollars needed to buy the silence of the burglars sitting in jail in the District of Colombia. Barry Seal was involved in the operation.
It’s early days yet in the 20-ton Containergate investigation. But we already know there was Russian involvement in the 20-ton drug move.
And we know that Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska— no stranger to drug trafficking—has an outsized presence in Kotor, where he built a $500 million dollar resort and lavish billionaire’s yacht club on the Adriatic.
Whether the billion dollar drug move was designed to enhance Donald Trump’s prospects for re-election remains unknown. But its a chilling prospect.
The template laid down by Barry Seal’s efforts to raise cash for the Watergate burglars through an explosives for heroin deal in Mexico is not, given the mobbed-up actors involved in the current scandal, outside the realm of possibility.
And we are, after all, finally entering the true season of Russiagate.
Creating marketing opportunities for the less well-connected
As U.S. Attorney McSwain should know, seizing 20 tons of cocaine does not mean 20 tons of cocaine have been removed from the drug market. It means a marketing opportunity has been created for someone else’s 20 tons.
McSwain’s comments came during a splashy news conference, as representatives from a half-dozen state and federal agencies took a bow while detailing the search for cocaine aboard the international cargo ship.
Asked whether the discovery came as a result of a specific tip to law enforcement or from a routine inspection, officials demurred. They discovered the illicit contraband when the ship docked at the Packer Marine Terminal, they said.
However, that assertion, as well as several others made during the press conference are challenged by facts which have come to light. Even so, the big bust would seem to have been a big break for law enforcement.
The ‘pocket litter’ alone from the crewmen arrested offers the promise of implicating an organization behind the world’s biggest cartel.
So far, however, none of this has occured.
JP Morgan: Schadenfreude can be a bitch
But billion-dollar payoffs are a regular occurrence at JP Morgan, and they’re mostly legal. They would seem to have too much to lose.
However serious suspicion is falling on the ship’s operator, Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC.)
The Mediterranean Shipping Co. responded to the drug raid by releasing a statement saying “it’s aware of reports of an incident at the Port of Philadelphia in which U.S. authorities made a seizure of illicit cargo.”
“MSC takes this matter very seriously and is grateful to the authorities for identifying any suspected abuse of its services.”
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.”
MSC’s five major drug busts this year
Geneva, Switzerland-based MSC’s recent history is, just by itself, enough to create misgivings among law enforcement.
There have been five—count them, five— major drug busts on MSC vessels so far just this year. This was already the second at the Port of Philadelphia. MSC was already lapping the field.
Then, too, there is this odd fact: MSC has been accused of being owned by the Sicilian Mafia in several major European newspapers. But maybe its just fake news, because U.S. prosecutors have not accused Mediterranean Shipping Company MSC of any wrongdoing.
Last month a federal grand jury finally charged one of the crewmen, Nenad Iliac, 39, of Montenegro, without feeling the need to immediately seal the case. It was the first movement forward in the case since June. He’s charged with conspiring to violate maritime drug-smuggling laws.
Nonetheless, almost five months after the big bust at the port of Philadlphia, the investigation led by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has yet to turn up anything beside the handful of able seamen—including three from Montenegro—that were taken into custody immediately afterwards.
All of which brings up a question. America’s major banks were deemed too big to fail during the Great Recession, despite their obvious criminal behavior.
Has transnational organized crime, too, now become too big to fail?
A really bad year at Mediterranean Shipping Company
MSC’s really bad year began when the MSC Divina cruise ship docked in Cozumel on January 29, and agents discovered six packets of cocaine inside of a compartment behind a toilet.
Nor was this the first time drugs had been seized on an MSC cruise ship recently.
Two months earlier, in November 2018, United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers arrested seven MSC crew members for smuggling cocaine into the port of Miami aboard the MSC Seaside.
But the big drug busts all happened aboard MSC’s container ships.
Associated Press misses two big MSC drug busts
Earlier in June, just a few days before the huge 20-ton cocaine bust in Philadelphia, the MSC Nuria was caught carrying 100 kilos of cocaine in Genoa, Italy.
In March, the MSC Desiree was caught carrying 450 bricks of cocaine worth $38 million dollars, in a container filled with lawn furniture.
During a “routine inspection” aboard the MSC Carlotta on February 28th, which had just arrived from Buenaventura, Colombia, agents discovered the largest drug shipment intercepted at the Port of Newark in a quarter-century inside a container that was supposed to contain dried fruit.
Just two months later—and, incredibly, aboard the same ship— when the Carlotta called again in Callao, Peruvian authorities seized another 2.4 tons of cocaine.
Able Seamen Charged, but no Kingpins
Eight crew members on the MSC Gayane were charged, and are being held in the U.S. The other sixteen crewmen, including the captain, were allowed to leave the country.
The ship itself, with some fanfare, was temporarily seized by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. But they soon gave it back, releasing it to the company after it agreed to put up a $50 million bond to ensure its compliance with US laws.
Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) is a closely-held family firm run by Gianluigi Aponte, an Italian billionaire who is one of the biggest players in Europe’s maritime industry, with more than 400 ships under his company’s control.
Coast Guard agents had found traces of cocaine on the hands and arms of the second officer, Ivan Durasevic, from Kotor in Montenegro, they announced in the press conference.
Durasevic had told investigators that he’d been recruited by the Ship’s Chief Officer, who went unnamed.
Ivan worked the crane while at least four other crew members wearing masks helped offload the drugs from a fleet of small go-fast boats which approached the Gayane shortly after it sailed from Peru.
Upon leaving Peru on it’s current voyage, Durasevic told authorities he’d received a phone call from the Chief Officer telling him to come down to the deck, where he saw nets on the port side loaded with cocaine.
Durasevic said he’d been paid $50,000 for his cooperation, and that he’d done the same thing on at least one previous occasion.
Committing the perfect crime
Someone committed the perfect crime.
On the evening of June 16, as skies grew cloudy over Delaware Bay, a giant container ship lumbered towards the Port of Philadelphia.
At more than 1,000 feet long, Mediterranean Shipping Company’s MSC Gayane has the capacity to carry more than 12,000 tractor-trailer-sized containers, and is among the world’s largest container ships, part of a class known as ULCVs – Ultra-Large Container Vessels.
But before reaching its scheduled stop at the Port of Philadelphia, the ship was intercepted by boats carrying a dozen armed U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, who climbed a rope ladder onto the container ship.
They were there, they said, to check to see if locks on the steel containers that hold millions of dollars’ worth of goods were intact. “The seals on some boxes didn’t look right,” stated someone with direct knowledge of the matter.
A routine inspection? Or was someone tipped off?
It hardly sounds like a routine inspection. Somebody must have tipped them off. Could that even be possible? Well, yes it could. Why in next story.
The Gayane case is under official seal, but an affidavit filed by a special agent from the Department of Homeland Security before the case was sealed provided the first detailed account of what happened.
According to the affidavit the MSC Gayane was approached on two separate occasions by as many as a dozen go-fast boats while it sailed at night in the Pacific Ocean between Chile, Peru and Panama.
The ship’s crane was used to bring the drugs onboard. One crew member “operated the crane to bring aboard bales of cocaine wrapped in netting. Other crew members stuffed the bales into containers holding other cargo.
Authorities at the news conference were only prepared to deal in generalities. Investigators said they couldn’t connect the MSC Gayane shipment with the two previous cases involving the company’s ships.
“But cocaine lords are increasingly using sea transport to bring their product to Western markets.”
On maritime industry websites, a number of seasoned sailors posted strong opinions on what had happened.“Why is the Chief Officer’s name ‘classified’ information?” asked one.
“Occam’s Razor dictates that 16-30 tons of cargo was not transferred at sea, but as part of routine onloading in port,” wrote another. “Logic dictates that the operator was complicit. The crew were given a prepared story in case they got caught. They will be given full legal support, which is normal procedure for drug cartels and their mules.”
“The crew is lying to protect their superiors from sanction,” stated another. “Their families get paid, while they take the heat and do time.”
According to a Montenegro news site, four seafarers from Montenegro, Ivan Durasevic, Bosko Markovic, Aleksandar Kavaja and Nenad Ilic, were arrested.
Trial postponed, it’s time for speculation
Who smuggled the drugs aboard the MSC Gayane? And why is it the perfect crime?
While the trial has been put off until May of 2020 at the earliest, that shouldn’t deter informed speculation.
MSC is the second largest container ship operator in the world. But MSC actually owns and operates very few ships. The container ships on which cocaine was seized in the past few months— the MSC Gayane, MSC Carlotta, and MSC Desiree—were until recently owned by SinOceanic Shipping, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Chinese HNA group, which sold the MSC Desiree and the MSC Gayane to Blue Star Shipping and JP Morgan last year.
Here’s the Big Queston: Is there a way to wriggle out of being caught holding the bag after you’ve been caught carrying 20 tons of cocaine?
How would you squirm out of it?
Before considering the options, let’s bring it down to a more understandable scale.
After spending an evening drinking margaritas, you’re on your way to three days in the sun at Rosario Beach when your motorhome is searched at the border and discovered to be bursting with cocaine from every seam.
So, who is going to take the hit?
“Unfortunately, motorhome rental company’s like ours are from time to time affected by trafficking problems,” the release states. “The increasingly compartmentalized nature of motorhome rental makes it easy to understand why renters have become targets for recruitment by smugglers.”
A Federale squints into the sun. “You mean this is not your motorhome?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. It belongs to “Motorhomes R’ US.”
“Where can we seize this Motorhomes R’ US?”
“Their home office is in The Seychelles. But you’re not going to be able to pin this on them. They just own the rolling stock. They outsourced the rental motorhome business to a company in Bangalore called ‘Temporary Solutions,’ which handles all the paperwork.”
That’s the power of globalization. If you know the lingo, anyone can be successful in drug trafficking.
Whose coke got busted?
One, China’s HNA Group, is owned by top Communist party officials. HNA Group until recently owned the three MSC container ships which ran afoul of US drug authorities. Their wholly owned subsidiary SinOceanic is still responsible for crewing all three ships.
The second private entity should be obvious by now. The 20-ton drug bust is the fourth one Mediterranean Shipping Lines has suffered this year.
European newspapers have reported—without being forced to retract the allegation—that MSC is owned by the Sicilian Mafia.
Get out your slide rules
Officials said 20 tons of cocaine is worth almost $1.5 billion dollars retail.
Wholesalers typically take a 70% cut. That’s just over a billion dollars. Now imagine both private corporate entities—the Chinese officials who secretly own HNA Group and the Sicilian Mob doing business as Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC)—are kicking back fifty percent of their illicit gains to their American counterparts— bankers, politicians, intelligence and military officials.
It’s the politic thing to do. Besides, half a billion dollars goes a long way towards catching the ear of anyone you’d ever want to do business with.
Until the war on drugs is over, slush funds of at least this magnitude will be available for purposes like thwarting the wishes of the American electorate through bribing elected officials.
The drug trade appears to have grown exponentially since.
An unfortunate giddiness
The U.S. attorney in Philadelphia struck a positively giddy note while triumphantly announcing the 20-ton seizure on Twitter… As if what had happened was somehow an unalloyed joy. As if it was a settled question that the war on drugs was a benefit to humanity, when it’s not.
What happened after McSwain’s announcement was nothing short of amazing. Ordinary citizens—though who knows on Twitter— responded to his gleeful announcement with a cynicism about America’s war on drugs that I thought was beyond them. I’d never seen anything like it.
“If they’re bringing in 20 tons on a ship in Philadelphia, imagine how much more must be coming in over the border!” replied one person in a tweet.
“I thought the problem was the southern border??” asked another.
“Elaine Chao’s retirement fund for Mitch just got a set-back!” wrote a third.
This last was an allusion to Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, whose wife’s family owns a Chinese shipping line which has occasionally been found carrying cocaine and other contraband.
Things always end up getting snarky on Twitter
As the snarky responses rolled in, U.S. Atty McSwain seemed to get a little hot under the collar, you could tell because he started using a lot of CAPITAL LETTERS.
And I thought, oh my god. The American public is finally coming to understand what’s going on. It seems a lot like what happened with marijuana, when seemingly out of the blue reason suddenly prevailed.
Based just on the response to US Attorney McSwain’s tweets, it appears to me that people are finally ready to renounce America’s useless trillion-dollar war on drugs, and the corrupt forces that keep it in place.
Early on in my investigation of drug trafficking in America, I had discovered the big dirty secret that in every nation on our Gangster Planet where there is a significant market for illegal drugs, controlling that market are the same people who control the government.
America’s big jefe is not someone like El Chapo Guzman, carrying a gold-plated firearm, wearing a ball cap, with a belt-buckle encrusted with diamonds and rubies.
It’s ‘the nobility.’ It’s the peerage. Party officials. Owners of hedge funds. The Davos elite.
Anyone looking to change the dynamic of the 1% controlling the majority of our resources must first figure out some way to wrest back control of the massive illicit drug trade—the number one industry in the world, which kicks out billions every year—from the people who successfully privatized it.
The day we tell them it’s not their cookie jar anymore—and make it stick— will be a real American Independence Day.
The CIA is always ahead of the curve
Humanity discovered opium and marijuana in the dim mists of time, and we’ve been dabbling with drugs ever since. There are even traces of cocaine in Egyptian mummies, though no one has yet figured out why.
The drug war does nothing except make drugs six times more expensive, which is exactly how much a gin and tonic went up when Prohibition began.
Criminalizing human nature has made some people wealthy and powerful almost beyond imagining. But what has now begun to dawn in the minds of a critical mass of Americans is that 20 tons of cocaine is just a rounding error.
Even if US Attorney McSwain was to announce the seizure of 200 tons of cocaine, the drug business would survive without breaking a sweat. It has proven it could pump out 2000 tons of cocaine more than it does today, if they had to.
But why do something which makes your product cheaper? The point is: they’re blessed with an inexhaustible supply.
Timeless question: Who controls the drug trade?
Nobody in the big Philly drug bust took any drugs off the street. In the U.S., or Amsterdam, or Madrid, or Hamburg, or wherever the 20 tons was bound for, somebody else’s 20 tons of cocaine became immediately available to take up any slack.
America doesn’t need any more family dynasties—like Bush and Clinton—built on drugs. The question has been the same for the past fifty years: “Who controls the drug trade?”
Maybe someday the answer to that question will be, ‘We do. You and me. We all do.’