Operation SpecTor Targets Darknet Markets
A coordinated operation spanning nine countries targeting darknet drug markets culminated in seizures of more than $50 million and millions of potentially lethal pills.
Kristen Varel, supervisory special agent, JCODE: JCODE is partnership between 13 U.S. agencies: FBI, DEA, postal investigators, HSI and IRS from the operational side.
Andrew Innocenti, supervisory special agent, FBI Los Angeles: We work darknet drug investigations. We search for who is selling illicit drugs online. So that could be opioids involving fentanyl, OxyContin pills. We also see heroin, meth, cocaine, you name it. Whatever drugs, illicit drugs are available, they're probably being sold on the darknet.
Varel: We focus on the vendor side of it here in the U.S., but the marketplace themselves and often the infrastructure is located overseas, heavily in European countries. And so we work a lot with our Europol partners.
Slide: Darknet marketplaces operate largely on the misguided belief that transactions occur behind a veil of anonymity.
Innocenti: If you know where to navigate to and you're able to find these different marketplaces and there are several of them up and running at any given time, you can peruse through and search different categories, drugs and opioids being one of them. And the way that it appears on your screen looks very professionally done. These vendor pages will list what they're selling, how much it costs, pictures. They have ratings from customers, how fast they got their products and obviously the prices.
Varel: Most of these darknet actors, the reason they're operating in the darknet is they don't see it as much of a risk as if they're doing hand-to-hand deals on the street. But we can see these transactions just as well as we can see those.
Innocenti: You might think that you have complete anonymity when you're operating in these environments, but the FBI, JCODE, and our law enforcement partners are able to pierce that.
Slide: The opioid seizures during Operation SpecTor dwarfed all prior operations since the Department of Justice launched JCODE in 2018.
Slide: The sheer volume of drugs seized during dozens of JCODE operations revealed both a flourishing market and the need for agencies to work together to fight it.
Slide: A single operation last fall turned up thousands of pills, some clearly aimed at young people who may not know what they are getting.
Innocenti: The individual who was responsible purported to be able to press thousands of pills a day. So you can imagine the frequency and the amount of drugs that are being able to be made and how fast they can be shipped out.
We found tens of thousands of pills at these locations. Some of them were rainbow colored. They call them Skittles. And those are purposefully marketed for teens and kids.
Varel: We’re seeing a lot more potent drugs. We’re trying to do our best to get the message out there that these pills are dangerous and you don't know what you’re getting. These individuals that are putting products [out there], they’re not chemists. They look for the profit margin. So they’re buying the cheap products like fentanyl.
Innocenti: The challenges that we face are, even when these pills are created and shipped around the country, well, now those pills are being resold in some instances to people in high school, people at universities.
By that point, you're diluting the message of what this actually is or is purporting to be. So oftentimes some of the questions we get are, you know, why would drug traffickers be selling pills to people that would kill them?
And that's not the point. That's not the idea. That's not the intent. The intent is to provide something that's so strong that these people get addicted. But when the messaging gets changed over time, from drug trafficker to darknet vendor, to reseller, to the local high school kid who's handing them out, who knows what you might be taking. And so that's where the danger lies.
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