In a massive global crackdown on fentanyl trafficking on the darknet, U.S. law enforcement agencies and their international partners announced Tuesday the arrests of nearly 300 suspects and seizure of a large cache of drugs, cash, virtual currency and weapons.
The law enforcement action, part of a two-year-old program known as Operation SpecTor, spanned three continents and involved the collaboration of eight countries. It was part of a Justice Department initiative led by the FBI known as JCODE, which aims to dismantle darknet marketplaces that sell drugs and other illegal goods.
The Justice Department described the takedown as “the largest international law enforcement operation targeting fentanyl and opioid traffickers on the darknet.”
The operation netted 288 arrests, 850 kilograms of drugs, including 64 kilograms of fentanyl or fentanyl-laced narcotics, $53.4 million in cash and virtual currencies and 117 firearms.
The total number of arrests was the highest ever for any JCODE operation and more than double that of the largest previous law enforcement action, officials said.
The seizures were also larger than in any prior operation.
“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,’” Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a press conference in Washington.
Officials said they collaborated with law enforcement agencies in Austria, France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Brazil, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
The operation had an unusual public awareness component. For the first time, the FBI deployed agents around the country to “knock and talk” with numerous buyers of drugs on the darknet and to warn them about the dangers of their drug buys, FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate said.
The risks of buying drugs from the dark web are “far too real and far too prevalent, and users never know which pill may be their last,” Abbate said.
The FBI-led operation is part of a broader effort by U.S. law enforcement agencies to curb fentanyl trafficking.
Last month, the Justice Department announced charges against the Sinaloa Cartel, a notorious drug trafficking organization based in Sinaloa, Mexico, and its facilitators around the world.
Garland described the cartel’s fentanyl trafficking operation as “the largest, most violent, and most prolific” in the world.
The Sinaloa is one of two major Mexican cartels that dominate the U.S. fentanyl market. The other one is known as the Jalisco Cartel.
Officials say the cartels cook fentanyl using precursor chemicals imported from China.
The announcement comes at a time when the United States is grappling with an opioid overdose crisis that claimed more than 100,000 American lives in the 12-month period ending in August 2022.
Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl were behind more than two-thirds of the deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Law enforcement officials say drug traffickers are increasingly turning to the dark web to sell illegal drugs, often in exchange for cryptocurrency.
The Justice Department showcased several prosecutions executed previously as part of Operation SpecTor.
Anton Peck of Boca Raton, Florida, was sentenced to 16 years in prison in December 2022 for allegedly peddling drugs from various darknet markets under the name Syntropy. He and two co-conspirators received cryptocurrencies before mailing parcels containing fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine to customers around the country.
Christopher Hampton of Cerritos, California, was charged in November 2022 with leading an organization that pushed millions of fake pills containing fentanyl and methamphetamine to thousands of customers on the darknet. Hampton operated on at least nine darknet marketplaces, according to court documents.
The alarming spike in fentanyl deaths has prompted Republican demands that the Biden administration label the cartels as foreign terrorist organizations and unleash the full force of the law against them.