300 were arrested in the fight against dark web drug trafficking

US and European authorities arrested nearly 300 people, confiscated more than $53 million, and seized a dark web market as part of an international crackdown on drug trafficking that officials say is the largest operation of its kind.

The operation targeting the “Monopoly Market” is the latest major takedown of trading platforms for drugs and other prohibited items in the so-called dark web, a part of the internet hosted within an encrypted network and accessible only through special tools that provide anonymity.

Most of the arrests were made in the US, which is in the grips of an overdose crisis. Synthetic opioids, mostly fentanyl, kill more Americans each year than the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

“Our message to criminals on the dark web is this: You can try to hide in the furthest reaches of the internet, but the Department of Justice will find you and hold you accountable for your crimes,” said US Attorney General Merrick Garland. The number of arrests and money seized is the highest of any international Justice Department-led drug trafficking operation, he said.

A California defendant led an organization that bought fentanyl in bulk, forced it into pills containing methamphetamine and sold millions of pills to thousands of people on the dark web, he said. .

Investigators also got leads from local police investigating overdose deaths, including a 19-year-old Colorado man who liked to study languages ​​and build his own computers. , said FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate.

“But some of the packages that his family thought were full of computer parts actually contained drugs that he bought from the dark net,” he said. “Because of the drugs, the young man who was guilty died of an overdose last year.”

For the first time, FBI agents from all of the bureau’s field offices also visited buyers to tell them about the overdose dangers of pills sold on the Internet, often disguised to look like prescription drugs. medicines.

The largest number of arrests – 153 – were made in the United States, followed by the United Kingdom with 55 and Germany with 52, according to the European Union’s law enforcement agency Europol, which coordinates worldwide operation.

“Our coalition of law enforcement authorities across three continents proves that we are all better when we work together,” Europol’s executive director, Catherine De Bolle, said in a statement. “This operation sends a strong message to criminals on the dark web: International law enforcement has the means and ability to identify and hold you accountable for your illegal activities, even on the dark web. “

It seized 50.8 million euros ($53.4 million) in cash and virtual currencies, 850 kilograms of drugs, and 117 weapons in a series of raids in several countries.

In the Netherlands, where authorities arrested 10 suspects, police said the operation was made up of “separate but complementary actions that took place in nine countries over the past 18 months.”

The Cyber ​​Enabled Crime Team of the Dutch national police was involved in the operation, codenamed SpecTor.

“The intelligence that Europol shared with us, such as transaction data and virtual currency addresses, helped us to start new investigations and to improve current investigations. This way we know and catch the many important Dutch sellers,” said the leader of the Dutch team, Nan van de Coevering. “The success of this operation also shows that international cooperation is essential in the fight against crime on the dark web.”

The seized drugs included 64 kilograms (141 pounds) of fentanyl or fentanyl-laced narcotics; more than 258 kilograms (569 pounds) of amphetamine; 43 kilograms (95 pounds) of cocaine; 43 kilograms (95 pounds) of MDMA; and more than 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of LSD and ecstasy pills, authorities said.

“A number of investigations to identify additional individuals behind the black web accounts are still ongoing,” Europol said. “As law enforcement authorities gain access to large numbers of vendors’ buyer lists, thousands of customers around the world are also at risk of prosecution.”

The agency, based in The Hague, built intelligence based on evidence from Germany, which it said seized the market’s “criminal infrastructure” in December 2021.

Ahead of the operation announced on Tuesday, German and US authorities removed the ” Hydra ” dark web market in April last year.

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