A ship owned by JP Morgan and operated by Mediterranean Shipping Company was temporarily released on Friday, weeks after it was seized in a drug bust that found 20 tons of cocaine. JP Morgan’s asset management arm, which owns the ship, and MSC together paid $50 million in cash and a surety bond to secure its temporary release. The ship was crossing the Atlantic Ocean on its way to the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands on Monday afternoon, according to MarineTraffic.
While the bust, and eventual release, made international news in large part because of the ties to American financial giant JP Morgan, the operator, Mediterranean Shipping Company, has its own interesting back story.
For starters, it was at least the third drug bust on ships operated by the Switzerland-based company this year. The first was in Philadelphia, the same port as the most recent bust, in March and the second was in Genoa, Italy, earlier in June. MSC, which is now the second-largest container shipping line in the world in terms of vessel capacity, just behind global leader AP Møller Maersk, is owned by one of the world’s richest couples, Gianluigi and Rafaela Aponte. Together the couple is worth an estimated $11.1 billion, ranked 133rd in the world by Forbes.
The bust last month was one of the largest in U.S. history, leading to the temporary suspension of MSC’s participation in a customs check program by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The program, the Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism or C-TPAT, was established in 2001 and allows shipping companies that strengthen their security measures to clear border checks more quickly.
“The MSC Gayane is the largest vessel seized in U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s 230-year history,” said Casey Durst, CBP’s Director of Field Operations in Baltimore, in a statement.
The MSC Gayane and the MSC Desiree, the ship that was searched in March, both followed a similar journey from Peru to Philadelphia by way of Panama and the Bahamas. The route the ships took is more important to investigators than the shipping company itself, according to CBP Press Officer Stephen Sapp.
“It’s not indicative of any specific shipping company, it is specific to the source nations where they’re making port calls,” Sapp said in an interview. “Along that route, there are opportunities for people to seal drugs inside those containers.”
Several crew members of the MSC Gayane were arrested and have been charged with conspiring to possess more than five kilograms of cocaine. While it’s unusual for crew members to take part in drug smuggling themselves, it’s fairly common for drug traffickers to smuggle narcotics aboard container ships. These methods can range from divers attaching loads to the ship’s hull to placing small packages of drugs inside refrigerated containers, according to Jakob Larsen, head of security at the international shipping association BIMCO.
“The scale of this is unusual, but it happens quite frequently,” Larsen said.
“Containers are normally stuffed in sites far away from the port and from law enforcement, and the shipping company doesn’t have the ability to inspect these containers.”
Cocaine production in Colombia is on the rise, with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy estimating that the country produced a record-setting 921 metric tons of cocaine in 2017. Adding to the problem is the Trump administration’s emphasis on securing the U.S.-Mexico border, which may have pushed some traffickers to shift routes and move more product onto container ships rather than taking it over land, according to Sapp of the CBP.
“It’s like a balloon,” said Sapp. “If you put pressure on one part of the balloon, it pops out on the other side. They’re going to take advantage of any means possible, it could be a plane, a small boat, submarines, or a large ocean liner like this one.”
MSC said it would continue to collaborate with customs and law enforcement. “We have a very long track record of cooperation with authorities in the United States,” said Giles Broom, global PR manager for MSC. “It’s an industry-wide problem that we’re tackling at the moment, it impacts the entire shipping and logistics sector.”
Beyond the container shipping business, MSC operates companies that handle inland logistics and port operations. The Aponte family also controls MSC Cruises, the fourth-largest cruise company in the world by number of passengers.