Federal authorities on Tuesday seized multiple containers of cocaine with an estimated street value as high as $1 billion at the Port of Philadelphia, according to the U.S. Attorney Office.
The seizure is the largest in the history of the city and could turn out to be the largest ever as authorities estimated that 16.5 tons of the drug were confiscated in the bust.
“This is one of the largest drug seizures in the United States history,” U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain said in a tweet. “This amount of cocaine could kill millions — MILLIONS — of people. My office is committed to keeping our borders secure and streets safe from deadly narcotics.”
McSwain said that members of the ship’s crew have been arrested and federally charged in the ongoing investigation.
McSwain said 16.5 tons (15,000 kilograms) of cocaine was found inside the cargo ship MSC Gayane at the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal Port on the Delaware River in South Philadelphia. Prior to docking in Philadelphia, the ship made stops in Chile, Panama and the Bahamas.
The seizure comes on the heels of a mid-March bust at the Port of Philadelphia that netted 1,185 pounds (538 kilograms) of the drug with an estimated street value of $38 million. That cargo was stuffed inside duffel bags aboard the ship MSC Desiree, which was travelling from Colombia and headed for Europe.
One week earlier, authorities confiscated 3,200 pounds of cocaine (1,451 kilograms) with a street value of $77 million at the Port of New York and New Jersey. It was the largest cocaine bust at that port in more than a quarter of a century.
Cocaine, widely abused in the 1980s, '90s and 2000s, was replaced by synthetic opioids and heroin over the last decade as the most pervasively abused lethal drug.
In 2017, 1,217 people died of overdoses in Philadelphia and at least three-fourth of them involved opioids, according to the city’s department of health.
Nationally, synthetic opioids like fentanyl have been responsible for thousands of overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The uptick in cocaine trafficking comes as Colombia, long the biggest producer of the drug, has stopped eradicating the coca plant, from which the drug is harvested.
Drug traffickers have been seeking out a new market for cocaine by mixing it with fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics founds that the number of overdoses deaths involving cocaine nearly doubled in two years — jumping from 5,892 in 2014 to 11,316 in 2016, the mot recent year for which data is available. Of that number, two out of five also involved fentanyl.