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Sweep Targets Darknet Drug Markets

Operation SpecTor spanned three continents, seized millions of dollars, and removed tens of thousands of potentially lethal drugs from circulation

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A massive, coordinated operation spanning nine countries and dozens of law enforcement agencies across the United States, Europe, and South America targeting darknet drug markets culminated recently with seizures of more than $50 million in cash and virtual currency, 1,875 pounds of potentially lethal pills and other drugs, and 288 arrests. Image Source FBI

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A massive, coordinated operation spanning nine countries and dozens of law enforcement agencies across the United States, Europe, and South America targeting darknet drug markets culminated recently with seizures of more than $50 million in cash and virtual currency, 1,875 pounds of potentially lethal pills and other drugs, and 288 arrests.

Operation SpecTor uncovered vast networks of manufacturers, online supply chains, buyers, re-sellers, and users, revealing that the darknet—a part of the internet accessible through an encrypted browser—provides only a veneer of anonymity. The drug seizures included about 152 pounds of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid so dangerous that two milligrams—like a few grains of salt—is a potentially lethal dose.

“The availability of dangerous substances like fentanyl on darknet marketplaces is helping to fuel the crisis that has claimed far too many American lives, “ FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement. “That’s why we will continue to join forces with our law enforcement partners around the globe to attack this problem together.”

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A coordinated operation spanning nine countries targeting darknet drug markets culminated in seizures of more than $50 million and millions of potentially lethal pills. FBI Image

The operation began in late 2021. The Joint Criminal and Opioid Darknet Enforcement (JCODE) team, which the Department of Justice created in 2018, led the effort. The team coordinates complex, multi-agency investigations into virtual marketplaces selling dangerous and illegal drugs around the globe. The FBI was among 12 U.S. agencies working with local partners in the operation.

Overseas, the Bureau worked closely with authorities in Brazil and Europol (which provides investigative support to European law enforcement agencies) to conduct 135 arrests and seize more than $38 million. 

In one operation in the U.S. last fall, investigators found six pill presses; 10 weapons; bundles of cash; and approximately 450 pounds of illegal drugs, which included thousands of pills, powdered fentanyl, marijuana, mushrooms, heroin, and other substances in a California basement.FBI Image

“These darknet marketplaces and vendors are not limited by geographical boundaries, requiring us to work closely with our international partners,” said Kristen Varel, a supervisory special agent in the FBI’s High Tech Organized Crime Unit, which coordinates the JCODE operations. “We focus on those vendors operating on U.S. soil, but we also investigate the marketplace infrastructure, which is frequently located overseas, often in European countries.”

The basement had to be sealed off and processed by the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Clandestine Laboratory Team. FBI Image

ere in the U.S., the FBI partners with federal agencies with expertise in every facet of the drug pipeline, from pill presses and social media posts to packages in the mail. That includes the Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security Investigations, the Internal Revenue Service, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Postal Inspection Service, which is the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Postal Service.

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A pill press found during a JCODE operation in Louisiana in 2020 illustrates the dirty conditions of some operations.FBI Image

“JCODE would not be successful without the partnerships,” Varel said. “Everything hits on multiple locations. We have shipments going back and forth between states and even countries. And so it’s key that we all work together on this.”

Law enforcement conducted more seizures—including 117 firearms—during Operation SpecTor than any prior operation. The number of arrests, including 153 in the U.S., are the most ever for any JCODE operation.

Failure to stem the tide of illegal counterfeit opioids is not an option. Deaths caused by synthetic opioids like fentanyl increased to 71,238 in 2021, up from 57,834 in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than 564,000 people died from opioid-involved overdoses between 1999 and 2020, according to the CDC.

JCODE’s approach to investigations is two-pronged. Teams target the infrastructure of the darknet marketplaces to ultimately take them offline. They then analyze the data, including usernames and accounts, to develop leads they can send to partner agencies around the world to build out investigations. The FBI alone has 56 field offices that can run down leads on suspects in their respective communities who have been identified as potentially selling or buying drugs traced back to the darknet markets.

In one case last November, a 36-year-old Los Angeles man was charged with leading an organization that used high-speed pill presses to create fake pills containing fentanyl and methamphetamine. He is accused of selling millions of pills to thousands of customers on the darknet

FBI Image
FBI Image

In another case, a 29-year-old Florida man was charged with distributing fentanyl, methamphetamine, and heroin through darknet markets and the U.S. mail. After his arrest, investigators found a list of 6,000 customers. He was sentenced in December to 16 years in prison

In Europe, Europol’s Joint Cybercrime Action Taskforce assembled intelligence packages from evidence gathered by German investigators, leading to hundreds of investigations and the arrests of vendors on other darknet marketplaces. “Our coalition of law enforcement authorities across three continents proves that we all do better when we work together,” said Europol Executive Director Catherine De Bolle of Operation SpecTor. “This operation sends a strong message to criminals on the dark web: international law enforcement has the means and the ability to identify and hold you accountable for your illegal activities, even on the dark web.”

JCODE investigators say it’s critical to understand that the drugs that appear on darknet sites can’t be trusted, even if they appear to be legitimate. In the Los Angeles case, for example, the main subject was operating six pill presses in an environment investigators described as unsanitary and unsafe.

“These pills are dangerous, and you don’t know what you’re getting,” Varel said. “These individuals are not chemists; they look for the profit margins. So, they’re buying cheap products like fentanyl and other things that are cheaper than the actual compounds that make up legitimate painkillers.”

To get the word out about the prevailing dangers, the JCODE team embarked on an effort this spring called Operation ProtecTor. This effort involved reaching out to individuals whose identities were discovered during search warrant and arrest operations of prolific vendors. The FBI sent leads to each of its field offices to work with partner agencies. Agents then drove to subjects’ homes, knocked on their doors, and let them know that law enforcement was aware of what they had been doing—and that the safest thing to do was to stop.

“No matter what somebody is telling you, you really don’t know what’s in it,” said Andrew Innocenti, a supervisory special agent who leads a JCODE squad in the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. He said the drugs—or the precursor ingredients they’re made of—can change hands frequently as they travel from the darknet to the doorstep.

Attorney General Merrick Garland gives remarks at a press conference May 2, 2023, in Washington, D.C. Also shown are FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate, left, and DEA Deputy Administrator Lou Milione. FBI Image

“When these pills are created and shipped around the country, they are being resold in some instances to people in high school, people at universities, people on social media,” he said. “And by that point, you’re diluting the message of what this actually is or is purporting to be. When the messaging gets changed over time, from drug trafficker to darknet vendor, to reseller, to the local high school kid who’s handing them out, who knows what you might be taking? And so that’s where the danger lies.”

Operation SpecTor is the fifth coordinated law enforcement action since the JCODE team was established in 2018. In remarks at a May 2 press conference in Washington, D.C., Attorney General Merrick Garland said the recent operation represents the most funds seized and the highest number of arrests in any coordinated international action led by the Justice Department against drug traffickers on the darknet.

“Our message to criminals on the dark web is this: You can try to hide in the furthest reaches of the internet, but the Justice Department will find you and hold you accountable for your crimes,” Garland said.

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