The Justice Department announced on Tuesday that 179 people were arrested worldwide and large quantities of drugs, weapons, and currency seized following a crackdown on opioid trafficking on the darknet, an area of the internet that can only be accessed with specialized software.
The bust, which was dubbed Operation DisrupTor, was coordinated internationally and conducted across the United States and Europe. Most of the arrests—121 of them—were made in the United States, with individuals in Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Austria, and Sweden also apprehended in the sting.
More than 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) of drugs were seized worldwide, while 604 pounds (274 kilograms) were seized in the United States, including drugs such as fentanyl, methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, and ecstasy, federal prosecutors said. Meanwhile, over $6.5 million in cash and virtual currencies and 63 firearms were also seized as part of the operation.
Authorities also identified individuals behind darknet vendor accounts, that usually operate anonymously, allowing them to dismantle the accounts and prosecute the individuals. Among them included the shutdown of one of the most prolific online drug trafficking organizations in the United States that operated under the name “Pill Cosby.” Members of this group have since been charged with manufacturing and distributing over one million fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills.
Similarly, a Costa Rican pharmacist has been charged by a grand jury in Washington for knowingly supplying large amounts of drugs to a dark web trafficker.
The operation also led to the successful shutdown of a drug trafficking organization that used online names such as “Stealthgod” to sell drugs. Authorities have linked this group to over 18,000 illicit sales to customers in at least 35 states and in numerous countries around the world.
Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said at a press conference on Tuesday that young addicts are increasingly relying on online vendors to purchase opioids and “darknet marketplaces” have grown popular at an alarming rate.
“Hiding behind anonymizing software known as Tor, a new sort of drug kingpin now is able to reach more buyers than ever before, through online marketplaces peddling every sort of illicit good and service imaginable,” Rosen said. “The darknet invites criminals into our homes, and provides unlimited access to illegal commerce.”
Rosen said the joint international operation sends a strong message to these drug traffickers and criminals.
“There will be no safe haven for drug dealing in cyberspace,” Rosen said.
Edvardas Šileris, the head of Europol’s European Cybercrime Center, shared similar sentiments saying that “the hidden internet is no longer hidden, and your anonymous activity is not anonymous.” Operation DisrupTor was coordinated by Europol and Eurojust.
Trafficking of opioids is a national crisis and poses a major threat to the lives of many Americans, Rosen said. The Trump administration has taken multiple steps to crackdown on the trafficking of fentanyl and synthetic opioids.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid pain reliever, has been approved for treating severe pain for conditions such as late-stage cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Each day, 128 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids, according to 2018 data by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The “economic burden” of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year, according to the CDC. This includes the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.
Over 67,000 people in the United States died of a drug overdose in 2018, Rosen said, citing the CDC.
“That’s over 1,000 people dead each week—1,000 lost parents, children, friends, and family members,” he said. “It is devastating our communities and our families.”
Bowen Xiao contributed to this report.