Justice Department officials this week announced the largest international opioid bust in history.
The historic takedown resulted in 179 arrests and the seizure of 500 kilograms of drugs, 63 illegal weapons, and more than $6.5 million. Roughly 274 kilograms of drugs were recovered in the United States.
“Criminals selling fentanyl on the Darknet should pay attention to Operation DisruptTor,” warned Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen. “The arrest of 179 of them in seven countries – with the seizure of their drug supplies and their money as well – shows that there will be no safe haven for drug dealing in cyberspace.”
Operation DisrupTor, which began about nine months ago, was an international investigation targeting Internet-based opioid trafficking in the US and Europe. The operation gets its name from the “Tor Browser,” an anonymity tool used to access the Darknet.
The operation was managed by the FBI with help from the DEA, ICE, Secret Service, Postal Inspection Service, IRS, ATF, and local law enforcement agencies. The takedown included arrests in the US, Germany, Canada, Netherlands, UK, Austria, and Sweden.
This is a major achievement, but the sale of illicit drugs in cyberspace continues to present a substantial problem. There are likely much bigger networks out there with much better security, in some cases openly endorsed by source countries. As we have seen in the past, websites on the Darknet tend to rebound quickly after takeovers.
To make matters worse, the Darknet is believed to be exacerbating the opioid epidemic.
The Darknet is the easiest place for people to buy illicit drugs, explains Canadian law enforcement officer Sgt. Mike Lalande. “They don’t need to go to a back alley or a street corner and meet somebody they’ve never met before, which could potentially put them in harm’s way. They can sit at their computer or their smartphone, and they can purchase the drug of their choice and have it delivered to their home.”
Media attention – including crackdowns – seems to fuel public interest in the Darknet and increase traffic on those websites, adds Lalande.
“The drug trade is moving to the digital space, online, because of its anonymity and its ease of use…There’s a shift from the old way of the drug trade to more of a modern, technological and digital era of selling drugs.”
AlphaBay – the largest online drug market before it was shut down by law enforcement agencies in 2017 – generated $94 million in sales in the US in a single year. The site boasted over 2,000 vendors and 12,000 drug listings.