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The final cargo ship crewman charged in a 20-ton Philly cocaine bust was sentenced to more than 7 years

The final cargo ship crewman charged in a 20-ton Philly cocaine bust was sentenced to more than 7 years
Jeremy Roebuck Sep 1, 2021

Aleksandar Kavaja, 28, of Montenegro, told the court he was forced into the trafficking effort by a powerful and murderous drug cartel that dominates his home country.

The final cargo ship crewman charged in connection with a 2019 attempt to smuggle $1 billion worth of cocaine through the Port of Philadelphia was sentenced to more than seven years in prison Tuesday after telling a federal judge he had no choice but to participate or risk death at the hands of a murderous cartel.

Aleksandar Kavaja, a 28-year-old ship’s electrician, said 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.

He handed the electrician a cellphone and instructed him 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.”

That cloak-and-dagger narrative of menacing cartel figures and intrigue on the high seas mirrored accounts shared by nearly all of the other Gayane crewmen who have sought mercy while facing sentencing before U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III.

But it also underscored the fact that while eight members of the ship’s crew are now serving prison terms, the men ultimately responsible for the smuggling effort and who stood to profit most likely remain free and unknown to authorities.

Investigators have closely guarded details of any progress they’ve made in tracing the source of the drugs — from the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal, where U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents discovered the illicit cargo in 2019, to Rotterdam, Netherlands, where the drugs were ultimately bound. From South America, where the cocaine was produced and packed for transport to Montenegro, a tiny Balkan nation whose two most lucrative industries — the staffing of international shipping vessels and cartels moving cocaine through Europe — collided to produce one of the largest drug busts in U.S. history.