(AP) — If drug interdiction can be compared to a giant game of whack-a-mole, federal law enforcement officials delivered one mighty wallop this week when they raided a container ship at Philadelphia’s port and discovered a staggering amount of cocaine.
Hidden inside seven shipping containers were 33,000 pounds (15,000 kilograms) of the illicit drug, one of the largest caches ever intercepted on U.S. shores and a quantity that’s almost “beyond comprehension,” as Patrick Trainor, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Philadelphia, put it Wednesday. Federal officials estimated the seized drugs had a street value of more than $1 billion.
The feds’ find was another sign that traffickers are turning to East Coast seaports as a result of increased law enforcement pressure along the country’s southwest border, a development cited by the drug enforcement agency in its latest national threat assessment. It was at least the third major bust in Philadelphia and New York since February.
“As soon as interdiction puts pressure on one place, it just pops up somewhere else. We’ve continually seen that,” said Nicholas Magliocca, a University of Alabama researcher who studies how traffickers adapt to interdiction. “As long as the demand is there, and there’s money to be made, traffickers are going to find a way.”
Cocaine use and overdose deaths are on the rise in the U.S. after years of decline as production has surged to record levels in Colombia, the source of about 90% of the U.S. supply.
Related: Feds seize $1B worth of cocaine docked at Philly port
Agents were doing another sweep Wednesday through thousands of containers on MSC Gayane, a cargo ship owned by Swiss firm MSC Mediterranean Shipping Co., but had not found any cocaine since their initial search on Monday, according to Stephen Sapp of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Philadelphia.
Two crew members have been charged and both men confessed to hiding the bundles on the ship.
Homeland Security agents say Ivan Durasevic, the ship’s second mate, told them he personally operated the crane to load the drugs after departing Peru.
The first mate allegedly asked Durasevic to pluck nets full of sealed packages from the ocean. Durasevic says he loaded even more packages from boats driven by men in ski masks that pulled alongside the tanker in the middle of the night near Panama.
Fonofaave Tiasaga is also charged. He told federal agents he helped conceal the drugs within other merchandise on the ship, and he was expecting to be paid $50,000 for helping each of the first mate, second mate, the electrician and engineer cadet – $200,000 total.
He says all of them allegedly coordinated their own individual load of coke.
Authorities say this wasn’t their first time doing a drug run.
So far, none of the other crew members have been charged.
KYW Newsradio’s Mike Dougherty contributed to this report.
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