Authorities in the U.S. and Europe arrested nearly 300 people, confiscated over $53 million, and seized a dark web marketplace as part of an international crackdown on drug trafficking that officials say was the largest operation of its kind.
The operation targeting the “Monopoly Market” is the latest major takedown of sales platforms for drugs and other illicit goods on the so-called dark web, a part of the internet hosted within an encrypted network and accessible only through specialized anonymity-providing tools.
Most of the arrests were made in the U.S., which is in the grips of an overdose crisis. Synthetic opioids, mostly fentanyl, kill more Americans every year than died in the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars 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 Justice Department will find you and hold you accountable for your crimes,” said U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.
The number of arrests and money seized was the highest for any international Justice Department-led drug trafficking operation, he said. One defendant in California led an organization that bought fentanyl in bulk, pressed it into pills with 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 man in Colorado who loved learning languages and building his own computers, said FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate.
However, he said, “several of the parcels his family believed were full of computer components are really filled with narcotics he bought over the dark web. “That promising young man tragically overdosed last year because of those drugs,”
For the first time, FBI agents from every field office in the agency went to purchasers to warn them about the risk of overdosing on pills purchased online, which are sometimes cloaked in the appearance of prescription medications.
According to the European Union law enforcement agency Europol, which oversaw the global operation, the majority of the arrests—153—were made in the United States, followed by the United Kingdom with 55 and Germany with 52.
The executive director of Europol, Catherine De Bolle, stated in a statement that “our coalition of law enforcement authorities across three continents proves that we all do better when we work together.” This operation sends a clear message to criminals operating on the dark web: Even there, international law enforcement has the tools necessary to find you and hold you accountable for your illicit activity.
In a series of searches across many nations, it was able to seize 50.8 million euros ($53.4 million) in cash and digital currencies, 850 kg of narcotics, and 117 guns.
The operation, which resulted in the arrest of 10 people in the Netherlands, was described by police as being made up of “separate but complementary actions that took place in nine countries over the past 18 months.”
The SpecTor operation was carried out by the Cyber Enabled Crime Team of the Dutch national police.
“The intelligence that Europol gave with us, such as transaction information and addresses for virtual currencies, assisted us to launch new investigations and to expand on those that were already underway. As a result, we were able to locate and capture a number of significant Dutch sellers, according to Nan van de Coevering, head of the Dutch team. “The success of this operation once again demonstrates the importance of international cooperation in tackling dark web crime.”
More than 258 kilograms (569 pounds) of amphetamines, over 43 kilograms (95 pounds) of cocaine, over 43 kilos (95 pounds) of MDMA, and more than 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of LSD and ecstasy pills are among the drugs that were recovered, according to the authorities. Fentanyl or medicines laced with fentanyl are also among the substances that were seized.
According to Europol, many investigations to identify more people operating dark web accounts are still continuing. “Thousands of customers around the world are now at risk of prosecution as law enforcement authorities gained access to the vendors’ extensive buyer lists.”
The Hague-based organization developed its intelligence based on information from Germany, which it said had captured the “criminal infrastructure” of the market in December 2021.