In one of the largest drug busts in American history, the U.S authorities in Philadelphia seized a container ship owned by banking giant JP Morgan that was carrying nearly 20 tons of cocaine valued more than $1 billion.

The cargo vessel MSC Gayane was raided on June 17. It was being operated by Switzerland based Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC).

The raid and drug seizure were conducted by the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency.

The Liberian-flagged ship was part of a transportation strategy fund run by JP Morgan’s asset management division. But JPMorgan Chase (JPM) has no operational responsibility of the vessel.

The bank did not comment.

On Monday, the US Attorney's Office of Pennsylvania announced that a warrant has been issued on July 4 permitting the CBP to take full custody of the ship.

“A seizure of a vessel this massive is complicated and unprecedented — but it is appropriate because the circumstances here are also unprecedented,” said US Attorney William McSwain in a statement.

In its response, the shipping company MSC said it would cooperate with law enforcement and denied it is a target of the U.S. government's investigation.

A reminder to shipping lines

Casey Durst, the CBP's Director of Field Operations in Baltimore warned that the seizure is a message that serious consequences await crewmembers and others who try to smuggle narcotic drugs through the United States.

“The MSC Gayane is the largest vessel seized in U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s 230-year history and follows the record seizure of almost 20-tons of cocaine discovered on the vessel,” noted Casey Durst.

According to MSC, the ship was on the way to northern Europe during the raid. Apart from the containers seized by the U.S authorities, all other cargoes have been sent to the respective destinations on other MSC vessels.

Unprecedented, say industry experts

According to reports, eight crew members have been arrested. They belonged to Serbia and Samoa. The ship’s second officer and another crew member have also been booked for helping bring the cocaine on board.

The log details show that the ship started sailing from the Freeport in the Bahamas and was bound for Europe after the U.S. stop.

Cargo Ship
An undocumented Russian cargo ship, carrying weapons and explosives, was detained by the South African port authorities, sailing off the coast of Port Elizabeth on Sunday. Getty Images/ Mark Dadswell

Ship executives and maritime lawyers expressed surprise at the incident given the size and age of the vessel.

“Historically, ships involved in criminal activity are older and beaten up,” commented Basil Karatzas, CEO of Karatzas Marine Advisors in New York.

“It is strange that such a modern and expensive vessel is involved in such a blatantly criminal case, like moving 20 tons of cocaine,” the expert added.