It’s one of the largest global dark web takedowns to date: 179 arrests spread across six countries; 500 kilograms of drugs seized; $6.5 million in cash and cryptocurrency confiscated. And while it was announced this morning, Operation Disruptor traces its roots back to May 3, 2019. That’s the day that German police seized Wall Street Market, the popular underground bazaar that gave international authorities everything they needed to upend the dark web drug trade.
It’s unclear how big a dent Operation Disruptor will make in the long run; the dark web drug market tends to bounce back, even after the high-profile collapses of marketplaces like the Silk Road and AlphaBay. But even if law enforcement is playing an eternal game of Whac-A-Mole, it’s at least gotten extremely proficient at whacking.
In the US, Operation Disruptor plays out across dozens of court documents and around 120 arrests. In Ohio, members of a group known as PillCosby were charged with mailing out over a million pills laced with fentanyl. Prosecutors in Washington, DC, allege that David Brian Pate concealed thousands of OxyContin, Xanax, and morphine pills inside souvenir maracas. A pharmacist in Nebraska allegedly planned to firebomb a local competitor after stealing their opiate supply, in service of what officials say was his booming narcotics trafficking business.
What these cases, along with the dozens of arrests across Europe, have in common is that the investigations largely stem from last year’s Wall Street Market takedown. At the time, German authorities arrested the site’s alleged operators and two of its most prolific vendors. Europol confirmed to WIRED today that it was also able to recover the Wall Street Market backend server, providing investigators with an invaluable trove of evidence.
“It provided us with all the information which led to the identification of those arrested today,” says Europol press officer Claire Georges. “We collated the information and then we sent out what we call intelligence packages to all the concerned countries. Basically it’s information or documents where we say, look, we know this person in your country has done this, you may want to open an investigation.” Georges says also that there are more arrests to come.
While announced as a package today, the arrests in the US have trickled through over the last several months. In a press conference Tuesday morning, DEA acting administrator Timothy Shea specifically called out Arden McCann, allegedly known as RCQueen, DRXanax, and other aliases across numerous dark web markets. Arrested earlier this year, McCann allegedly shipped over 10 kg of fentanyl and over 300,000 counterfeit Xanax pills every month.
“In some ways this is just the perfect storm combination of traditional criminal activity of all shapes and sizes merging with this more sophisticated technology,” FBI director Christopher Wray said at Tuesday’s press conference. “But the point of today’s announcement is it doesn’t matter where you go to try to do it or how you try to hide it, we’re coming for you.”
That has increasingly seemed to be the case. The Wall Street Market seizure is not the first or even most devastating law enforcement takeover of a dark web storefront. In 2017, Dutch police took control of Hansa, a booming darknet market, and the FBI shut down AlphaBay, an even larger competitor. While displaced AlphaBay users flocked to Hansa for their fix, Dutch authorities spent weeks logging their activity, including many of their home addresses.
The takedowns and seizures invariably have a cumulative effect. “These people don’t just operate on one market, they cover the full spectrum of the dark web,” says Europol’s Georges.