It’s among the largest global dark web takedowns so far: 179 arrests spread across six states; 500 kilos of drugs seized; $6.5M in cash and bitcoin confiscated. And while it was announced this morning, Operation Disruptor traces its origins back to May 3, 2019. That is the day that German authorities captured Wall Street Market, the popular underground marketplace that gave global authorities everything they had to upend the dark web drug trade.
It is unclear how large a dent Operation Disruptor will make in the long term; the dark web drug market will bounce back, even after the high profile collapses of marketplaces such as the Silk Road and AlphaBay. But if law enforcement is playing an eternal game of Whac-A-Mole, it has at least gotten exceptionally proficient at whacking.
In the united states, Operation Disruptor plays out over dozens of court records and about 120 arrests. In Ohio, members of a group called PillCosby were charged with mailing over a 1M pills laced with fentanyl. Prosecutors in Washington DC allege that David Brian Pate hidden thousands of OxyContin, Xanax, and morphine pills within souvenir maracas. A pharmacist in Nebraska allegedly planned to firebomb a local rival after stealing their opiate supply, in support of what officials say was his flourishing narcotics trafficking enterprise.
Together with the dozens of arrests across Europe, these cases have in common that the investigations mostly stem from last year’s Wall Street Market takedown. At the time, German authorities arrested the website’s alleged operators and two of its most successful sellers. Europol confirmed to Dark Web Magazine now it was also able to recoup the Wall Street Market backend server, providing researchers with a priceless trove of evidence.
“It provided us with the information which resulted in the identification of those arrested today,” says Europol press officer Claire Georges. “We collated the data, and then we sent out that which we call intelligence packages to each of the concerned states. Basically, it’s documents or information where we say, look, we know this individual on your country has done this, you might choose to start an investigation.” Georges also says that there are more arrests to come.
While declared as a bundle today, the USA’s arrests have trickled through within the past several months. At a press conference Tuesday morning, DEA acting secretary Timothy Shea, specifically Arden McCann, allegedly called RCQueen, DRXanax, and other aliases across numerous darknet marketplaces. Arrested earlier this season, McCann supposedly delivered over ten kilograms of fentanyl and more than 300K counterfeit Xanax pills each month.
“In some ways that is simply the perfect-storm combination of conventional criminal activity of all sizes and shapes merging with this sophisticated technology,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said at Tuesday’s press conference. “But the purpose of today’s statement is that it doesn’t matter where you go to attempt to do it or how you try to hide it, we are coming to you.”
That has seemed to be true. The Wall Street Market seizure isn’t the first or even most catastrophic law enforcement takeover of a dark web storefront. In 2017, Dutch authorities took charge of Hansa, a booming dark web market, and the FBI closed down AlphaBay, an even bigger competitor. While homeless AlphaBay users flocked to Hansa for their repair, Dutch police spent weeks logging their activity, including lots of their home addresses.
The takedowns and seizures always have a cumulative impact. “These people do not just operate on one market, they cover the complete spectrum of the dark web,” says Europol’s Georges.
In America, the arrests fell under the DOJ’s Joint Criminal Opioid and Dark Web Enforcement Group, which includes investigators from the FBI and the United States Postal Service. J-CODE’s latest operation, named Sabotor, led to 61 arrests announced in March 2019.
What remains to be seen is if dark web drug buyers will just find new providers, particularly since Operation Disruptor targets individual sellers as opposed to entire marketplaces. At the minimum, however, Tuesday’s announcement may give aspiring dark web vendors pause, as it only adds to law enforcement’s track record of cutting through allegedly anonymous corners of the net.
“We’ve got very creative men and women who are themselves very innovative within the law and with an assortment of tools to capture people who believe they can hide in the dark web,” Wray said at Tuesday’s press conference. The FBI director declined to comment on particular practices.