The storage shed by the modest yellow stucco house in Sunland, California, was tidy and organized. Mailing supplies, tape, and materials were stacked or sorted into labeled bins, and a large box held packages that were addressed and ready to be dropped at the post office. It looked like a run-of-the-mill mail-order business. Until the search went further into the space.
There, agents from the FBI, United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) found about 50 pounds of methamphetamine and bags and containers full of thousands of Adderall pills. There were also scales, package sealers, and three firearms.
Each of those packages that were filled or waiting to be filled would bring drugs to someone in the United States—where an individual is now more likely to die of a drug overdose than in a car accident.
The search of a second site used to package drugs for the same operation yielded another huge supply. Agents uncovered well over 100 pounds of methamphetamine and some 30,000 pills in the two locations—a bundle of dangerous drugs worth several million dollars.
The two search operations, combined with law enforcement actions in other locations and at later dates, led to the arrests of multiple people linked to an online drug trafficking organization that sold under several monikers on the darknet. The individuals are now facing some combination of narcotics trafficking, conspiracy, money laundering, and firearms charges that could lead to sentences of between 10 and 25 years in federal prison.
During a search operation in February in Los Angeles, JCODE Task Force members found more than 100 pounds of methamphetamine, thousands of pills, $22,000 in cash, and addressed packages ready to be mailed.
Searches in L.A. led to the arrests of several people linked to an online drug trafficking organization that sold under several monikers on the darknet.
The operations and similar efforts throughout the U.S. and Europe were part of Operation DisrupTor, carried out by the partner agencies that form the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement (JCODE) team.
Investigators say the group completed more than 18,000 drug sales on several darknet sites. The darknet is a part of the internet accessed through a specialized browser and provides users a greater degree of anonymity.
Law enforcement believes this may be one of the biggest bulk methamphetamine darknet seller yet uncovered. Investigators said that the evidence indicates that the group was supplying other darknet vendors and street drug dealers in addition to shipping drugs to individual buyers throughout the U.S. and abroad.
These operations in the Los Angeles area and similar efforts throughout the U.S. and Europe were part of a concentrated effort called Operation DisrupTor, carried out by the partner agencies that form the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement (JCODE) team. Law enforcement here and abroad arrested 179 individuals and seized more than 500 kilograms of illegal drugs as part of Operation DisrupTor.
Created in 2018, JCODE combines the efforts of the FBI, USPIS, HSI, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Department of Justice, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Department of Defense, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. As many of these markets cross borders, Europol is also an invaluable international partner in JCODE’s work to make a global impact on darknet drug trafficking.
“The law enforcement personnel assigned to JCODE specialize in threats where traditional criminal activity intersects with sophisticated technological platforms,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said during a press conference today announcing the results of Operation DisrupTor. “Every day, they’re working to show these criminals that they can no longer count on hiding on the darknet—because we’re going to infiltrate their networks, shut down their online illicit marketplaces, and bring them to justice, no matter what it takes.”
Shining a Light on the Darknet
The darknet offers its users anonymity, and cryptocurrencies—which are the preferred method of payment on darknet sites—provide additional ways to veil transactions.
“Many people are more comfortable logging onto their computer and buying drugs in three minutes from their couch than going to a sketchy street corner,” said FBI Los Angeles Special Agent Christopher Siliciano, who believes the ease and concealment offered by these markets have made drugs more accessible.
A JCODE operation in Louisiana in May 2020 turned up prepackaged bags containing Xanax and MDMA pills ready for shipment, as well as U.S. currency.
The search uncovered a safe containing hundreds of pills, along with a pill press and other equipment for binding pills. A cache of weapons was also seized.
But what looks from the outside to be an impenetrable cycle of distant and anonymous exchanges is not without its cracks. “The sellers still have to turn their money into cash, they still have to pick up the drugs, they still have to transport the drugs,” said Siliciano. “Not all of that happens on the internet.”
HSI Special Agent Christopher Hicks, who supports the JCODE team in Los Angeles, said that vulnerabilities exist for the darknet buyers, too. “Even if you’re getting stuff shipped to a post office box under a fake name, you have to open that mailbox. You have to touch that package.”
Hicks’ particular expertise is in following drug money through the dizzyingly complex world of cryptocurrency exchanges, apps, and tumblers. He stressed that cryptocurrencies have their exposure points as well: “People think cryptocurrency is this anonymous platform, but there are things we can exploit to find out who people are. It’s not truly anonymous.”
Although darknet markets offer investigators ways in, it isn’t easy. Nathan Cocklin, the special agent who leads the Los Angeles JCODE task force for the FBI, said that partnering on these complicated and time-consuming cases is the only way law enforcement can be effective. “None of us could do it alone,” he explained. “We each bring a specific skill set to the investigation.”
Postal inspectors are often the critical starting point for the cases and provide the ability to track and investigate parcels. DEA is a vital information-sharing partner and helps with drug testing, analysis, and trends. The FBI provides a deep well of investigative resources, while HSI supports the investigations of financial transactions and links international efforts.
And the ability to share information with international partners is essential in these networks that so easily cross borders. “Many of our European partners have excellent cybercrime units,” said Hicks. “We are able to leverage their skills and what they know how to do best.”
“We are starting to see an impact of what law enforcement action has been doing. There is great mistrust and upheaval in the marketplaces.”
Nathan Cocklin, special agent, FBI Los Angeles
Joint investigative efforts have yielded tremendous successes in the last 10 years, with law enforcement seizing several major darknet marketplaces. The most recent seizure was Wall Street Market in 2019, when the site’s administrators were charged not only with running the illegal market but with stealing all of the money held in its escrow and user accounts.
Each success gives investigators additional leads to fuel more investigations. “The data and the information that we receive from each subsequent takedown gives us a clearer picture of the next target,” said Cocklin.
The snowballing effect of law enforcement action, combined with some high-profile frauds—like the one carried out on Wall Street Market—has eroded the market trust of both buyers and sellers. “We are starting to see an impact of what law enforcement action has been doing,” Cocklin explained. “There is great mistrust and upheaval in the marketplaces.”
This hasn’t put the markets out of business, but it has pushed buyers and sellers to less centralized sites. “We are seeing more peer-to-peer encrypted apps,” Cocklin said. “Those creates a new challenge for law enforcement, but they have also removed some of the ease offered by the darknet. Tactics change, and we just have to stay with the game.”
Siliciano said that if it’s harder to find and buy the drugs, he’s hopeful that more people will seek help. Reaching out to darknet buyers has always been another aim of JCODE investigations, as they often reveal lists of people who have been buying drugs.
Agents make visits to some of these buyers to let them know their purchases are not as anonymous as they believe and to offer information and treatment resources in hopes that they don’t buy again.
“You can’t work these cases without being touched by the devastating human toll of these drugs—the lives and the loved ones lost,” said Special Agent Maggie Blanton, a supervisor in the Hi-Tech Organized Crime Unit at FBI Headquarters. “It’s why these online marketplaces are so worrisome, and why JCODE was created to combat them.”