Federal law enforcement officials announced Tuesday the arrest of 61 dark net drug vendors as part of Operation SaboTor, the second take down by the Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement (J-CODE).
In addition to the 61 arrests, U.S. agents and their international law enforcement partners shut down 50 dark net accounts. They also seized nearly 300 kilograms of drugs, 51 firearms, and more than $7 million in cryptocurrency, cash, and gold.
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"Darknet" is an ominous term with a less-than-scary meaning: it refers to sites available on the internet but which are not indexed by search engines. Many of these sites also require special software to access them, most frequently the encrypted browsing tool Tor.
The dark net does play host, however, to a number of sites specifically designed for the selling of illicit contraband—especially drugs, but also firearms and illegal pornography. According to the Rand Corporation, online drug sales are a small but growing proportion of total sales, accounting for between $12 and $21 million in revenue in January 2016 alone.
Dark net markets are, however, a particularly popular source for mail-order drugs, which routinely arrive to the United States from China in the U.S. mail. These often include the deadly opioid fentanyl, making online markets a major vector for overdose deaths caused by it.
This is why the markets have been a target of the Department of Justice under President Donald Trump. In July of 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the takedown of AlphaBay, at the time the largest dark net market according to DOJ.
J-CODE was formed half a year later, with the explicit goal of allowing federal and international law enforcement cooperation in targeting dark net market dealers. Its first success, Operation Disarray, led to eight arrests.
Operation SaboTor was a coordinated effort between the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Drug Enforcement Agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and international law enforcement partners in Europe. It encompassed a number of separate but coordinated operations, all meant to target the most prolific dark net drug vendors and disrupt supply.
"Law enforcement is most effective when we work together, and J-CODE is the global tip of the spear in the fight against online opioid trafficking," said FBI Director Christopher Wray. "Criminals have always adopted innovations and new technologies to achieve their illicit goals, and it's our job to adapt and remain ahead of the threat. Operation SaboTor demonstrates not only the strength of our partnerships across the U.S. Government and abroad, but how we're able to capitalize on those partnerships to disrupt criminal activity, even when they try to hide it on the Darknet."