Two cargo ship crewmen tied to one of the largest drug busts in U.S. history told a federal judge Monday that they initially resisted but were ultimately powerless to turn down efforts to recruit them into a conspiracy to smuggle 20 tons of cocaine through the Port of Philadelphia.
Ivan Durasevic, 31, and Nenad Ilic, 41, both of Montenegro, said they were contacted by an anonymous representative from a powerful Balkan drug trafficking organization before they ever set sail aboard the MSC Gayane, the boat on which U.S. authorities discovered the $1 billion cocaine haul in June 2019.
Despite initially turning down offers of “astronomical sums” to join the smuggling effort, both men said they ultimately did so in fear for their own safety and that of their families.
“It simply was not a viable option for him to say no when he was recruited,” said Durasevic’s attorney, Mythri A. Jayaraman. “Recruited is too mild a word, he was coerced.”
The crewmen shared their fears as they faced sentencing Monday, after pleading guilty last year to one count of drug trafficking conspiracy. U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III ordered Durasevic, the Gayane’s second mate, and Ilic, an engineering cadet, to serve prison terms of six and a half and seven years, respectively.
Despite their claims of coercion, the judge said, both men made a choice to participate “in major, major drug activity — unprecedented — which could have resulted in the deaths of thousands of people.”
The defendants’ concerns about the gang behind the smuggling effort echoed those expressed by many of the five other Gayane crewmen who have already been sentenced in the case. Each was ordered to serve prison terms ranging from two to seven years. One more remains to be sentenced.
In the time since the record-breaking cocaine haul was discovered, igniting a globe-spanning investigation, none of participants aboard the Gayane appears to have provided significant information on the organizers of the drug load.
Montenegro has been riven for years by gang violence linked to the lucrative European drug trade.
Plagued by corruption, double-digit unemployment, and other social ills stemming from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the tiny nation of mountains and coastlines on the Adriatic Sea has become a prime recruiting ground for two lucrative industries.
Global shipping companies like the Mediterranean Shipping Co., the Switzerland-based conglomerate that owned the Gayane, employ an estimated 7,000 Montenegrins. Meanwhile, clans of organized criminals — many of them originating in the tourist town of Kotor, where Durasevic’s family still lives — have attached themselves like barnacles to the shipping trade, targeting seamen as conspirators in their efforts to move their product.
Ilic’s attorney, Dennis Cogan, said Monday that his client twice received anonymous phone calls — once before he set sail from Antwerp, Belgium, and again when while at sea — pressuring him to participate and offering him upward of $1 million for his efforts.
He still couldn’t say who initially recruited him. Saying yes to the man “was the worst thing he’s ever done,” Cogan said.
Durasevic, who said he was offered $200,000, was equally at a loss to explain. Even after he agreed to join the conspiracy, he tried to toss the phone the traffickers used to contact him during the journey overboard. They still managed to exert pressure upon him through other members of the crew, Jayaraman said.
“He did participate,” she said. “But he tried his best not to, despite the dangers involved.”
Prosecutors pushed back against the idea that Durasevic and Ilic were powerless to resist.
Durasevic, in particular, as the ship’s third-ranking officer, was in a key position to ensure that the loading of the drugs in secret went off as planned and that the illicit cargo went undetected as the Gayane made its way from port to port.
Using phones they had been given in advance, he and the others coordinated with the cocaine suppliers in South America to secretly load duffel bags filled with white bricks from speedboats that approached the Gayane under the cover of darkness during its journey between Panama and the Peruvian coast.
He recruited others on the ship to pitch in with the manual labor of hauling the drugs aboard and hiding them in shipping containers carrying cargo like wine, vegetable extract, Chilean dried nuts, scrap metal, and other legitimate goods bound for Europe, Africa, and Asia.
But when U.S. authorities intercepted the ship as it pulled into Philadelphia on its way to the Netherlands, it was Durasevic, Ilic, and their fellow crewmates who were left to pay the price — one made abundantly clear during their sentencing Monday.
Durasevic’s family watched the proceedings by video from Montenegro, having had only a few opportunities to see him since his arrest in 2019.
His wife told the court she’d become pregnant shortly after he set sail on the Gayane and had since given birth to twins.
“He’s missed everything,” she told the court. “He’s never felt the heart of his own child. He’s never touched them. He’s never felt what it’s like to make his own child laugh.”
Durasevic, speaking through an interpreter, hung his head low.
“I feel horrible for what I’ve done,” he said. “I’m missing everything important that’s happening in my life.”
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