DOJ-Led Operation Collars 150 Darknet Drug Traffickers Worldwide

October 27, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

On Tuesday, Oct. 26, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the results of a massive ten-month, multinational, multi-agency operation (called “Dark HunTor”), which included over 150 arrests across the world and the seizure of 45 weapons, 234 kgs of drugs, and over $31 million in cash and virtual currencies. Around 65 of the arrests were carried out in the U.S., and the DOJ says that a number of connected investigations are still ongoing. Prosecutions in this case will take place in over 15 federal districts. 

The operation, which was run by the DOJ’s Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement (JCODE) spanned the U.S., Europe, and Australia, and was aimed at disrupting the illegal trafficking of opioids, an increasing amount of which are laced with deadly substances like fentanyl these days. The drugs seized included amphetamine, cocaine, opioids, MDMA, ecstasy, fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methamphetamine. They also found fake medicines.

The DOJ says that Operation Dark HunTor is the largest and most successful operation the JCODE has ever run. It is rooted in the takedown of the website DarkMarket by German authorities earlier this year, in January. At the time, DarkMarket was the largest illegal marketplace on the darkweb. During that process, officials seized the site’s infrastructure, which proved to be a treasure trove of evidence. With the help of Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre (EC3), the JCODE was able to put together information on the key drug buyers and vendors on the darknet, resulting in Operation Dark HunTor.

The term “Darknet” refers to that obscure part of the internet that doesn’t show up in conventional search engines and that must be accessed via special, untraceable browsers. The name of the operation is a play on words that refers to the Tor Browser, which is a famous, “specialized anonymity-providing” web browser. 

The shadowy, encrypted nature of these Darknet websites makes it difficult for law enforcement to monitor them, making them ideal for trafficking in illegal goods and services, ranging from human and sex trafficking and organ sales to illegal drugs and counterfeit medications.

In August, Biometrica wrote about how drug trafficking over the darknet grew nearly fourfold in recent years, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. Speaking at the press conference Tuesday, Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco pointed out that ​​“since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people have turned to the Darknet than ever before to buy drugs. Already a billion-dollar illicit drug industry, Darknet drug revenue has surpassed pre-pandemic levels.” 

On the operation, she added, “Operation Dark HunTor was launched with one clear goal: to hunt down the vendors, buyers, and suppliers who had been hiding on that site and make sure they did not find a new platform.” In the U.S. alone, per Deputy AG Monaco’s statement, authorities seized “over 200,000 pills, 90% of which were found to contain counterfeit opioids or narcotics.”

Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the Criminal Division also delivered a statement, in which he noted: “The online trafficking of opioids, particularly fentanyl, poses a lethal threat to not only the United States, but also to our European and Australian counterparts, and beyond. This is a global threat that requires a global response. […] It is clear to me that only through a ‘whole of government’ and, in this case, global approach to tackling cyber-enabled drug trafficking can we hope to achieve the significant results illustrated in today’s announcement. Consistent, coordinated and collaborative bilateral engagement efforts are the key to the success you see here today.”

The JCODE is led by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and pairs up federal law enforcement with their foreign counterparts and “supports, coordinates, and assists in de-confliction of investigations targeting for disruption and dismantlement of the online sale of illegal drugs, especially fentanyl and other opioids.” Last September, the initiative was behind Operation DisrupTor.

The JCODE spans a number of U.S. agencies, including the FBI, the DOJ’s Criminal Division, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS); the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation team, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).