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As the coronavirus pandemic spread through the United States, the existing epidemic of drug addiction accelerated alongside it. In its preliminary data, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that overdose deaths reached an all-time high in the 12 months after pandemic-related lockdowns began in the U.S. Nearly 100,000 fatal overdoses were recorded from March 2020 to March 2021.
It was a hard, deadly year in America.
In a conference room space used by the partner agencies that form the Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement (JCODE) team, an FBI analyst is examining the online marketplaces that have made it possible for users to get potentially deadly drugs delivered to their doors.
These sites exist on the dark web or darknet, an area of the internet accessed through a specialized browser called Tor. Tor offers additional levels of privacy by obscuring the user’s IP address and encrypting information. But the markets themselves look like standard e-commerce sites, complete with pictures, customer reviews, and listings for not only drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine but what sellers claim are brand name prescription medications.
“These markets give an illusion that what you’re looking at is from the supply chain or it’s from a professional in some way, shape, or form,” said Katherine Brennan, a management analyst with the FBI who supports the JCODE initiative. “But these are pills pressed with fentanyl in somebody’s home or a warehouse. They’re very dangerous. There is no oversight or testing. They’re not coming from a place where people are following policies and procedures to create medication or other products in a way that’s safe.”
Fentanyl is a powerful, dangerous synthetic opioid that is now present in many street drugs and also used in most of the pain pills sold illegally online.
Prescription drugs, and certainly prescription pain killers that contain opioids, can and have caused overdoses and deaths, but counterfeit pills that hold an unknown amount of fentanyl present an even greater risk. The Drug Enforcement Administration’s One Pill Can Kill public awareness campaign reported that two out of every five pills the agency seized and tested contained enough fentanyl to be potentially fatal.
Brennan also wants parents, educators, and family members to understand that these darknet sites are not hard to use or hard to access. You don’t need special equipment or technical knowledge. And cryptocurrencies, the preferred method of payment for these sites, have become mainstream and easy to use.
“It’s a business,” said Brennan. “They’re running a marketplace that’s designed to sell products. If people can’t get to that site and if they can’t purchase products, then it’s not working. Darknet market activity from kids, at risk individuals, or those who are suffering from addiction is something to keep an eye out for.”
A shuttered darknet marketplace looks familiar to online shoppers, but the products are illegal and potentially lethal.
FBI agents who support a digital organized crime task force in southern Ohio stress that these darknet sites are not the only source in a drug trade that is rapidly moving online. With increasing law enforcement pressure on darknet sites and some major market disruptions, drug transactions are also occurring on encrypted apps and even on popular, mainstream social media platforms.
As the drug trade has gone high tech, agents are also seeing a new generation of dealers. “Every person we have arrested in this space has a college education,” one agent said of the cases his Cincinnati-based unit has worked. “They can really speak intuitively to the technology being used, and that is a real contrast from more traditional drug traffickers.” They also tend to have a deeper knowledge of cryptocurrencies—something the agents say is now a common thread in crimes that range from drug trafficking to romance scams.
A case involving a group of young, technology-adept suspects brought these Ohio-based agents to Houston, Texas, in June 2021. Their investigation was one of several carried out this year as JCODE agencies worked with state and local partners to keep pressure on buyers and sellers and disrupt these markets.
Investigators from Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI conduct a search on a computer.
Because these operations easily cross state and national borders and touch the mail stream and a number of financial instruments, the response to them must be coordinated among federal partners. JCODE investigations combine the strengths of the FBI, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Homeland Security Investigations, Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. The Department of Justice, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Department of Defense, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection also provide expertise and support. Europol is an invaluable partner abroad, as are the state and local agencies that provide crucial localized knowledge and boots on the ground support for investigations, searches, and arrests.
When FBI agents, postal inspectors, and members of the Houston Police Narcotics Tactical Team showed up at the upscale apartment of a drug trafficking suspect, it held all the trappings of young money: exposed brick walls and wood floors, tables full of DJ equipment, huge TVs, and several computers. Agents also uncovered stacks of $100 bills in a locked suitcase and found drugs throughout the apartment.
Agents and officers searched four sites that day and arrested six people who were allegedly all involved in an active online drug marketplace. In total, law enforcement seized more than $200,000 in cash and eight weapons from the suspects.
Those arrests were part of the JCODE team’s annual campaign, this year called Operation Dark HunTor. The operation resulted in the seizure of over $31.6 million in cash and virtual currencies and approximately 234 kilograms of drugs worldwide. Law enforcement made 150 arrests, with 65 in the United States.
JCODE was created in 2018 and has grown stronger as it carried out several successful investigations and market disruptions. “The partnerships have only gotten better,” said Special Agent Benjamin Inman, head of the FBI’s JCODE team. “As time has progressed, the scope of the operations has gotten substantially larger.”
Even though the darknet browsers, encrypted apps, and use of cryptocurrencies make the investigations a challenge, Inman says the team manages to find the cracks in these groups. “We do have a tremendous amount of success in both identifying the marketplaces and the administrators and vendors and bringing them to justice.”
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