Federal Partnerships Key to Dismantling Online Drug Markets
When Knoxville first responders found a man dead in his home, there was clear evidence on the scene of the heroin that caused his overdose. Also nearby were clues to how the deadly drugs had reached him. Investigators found a padded manila envelope with postage and markings that provided them another link back to the online drug sellers who have proliferated on the Darknet in recent years.
Drug traffickers are increasingly using anonymous online networks to sell narcotics, including potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl, to buyers who can order and receive the drugs without ever leaving home. What can appear to be a regular e-commerce transaction is one of the delivery channels fueling a deadly nationwide epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that drug overdose deaths have been on an upward climb for several years, across the United States and across all demographic groups. In 2017 alone, 70,237 people in this country died of a drug overdose; two-thirds of those deaths involved an opioid.
As part of a government-wide effort to address the epidemic, the Department of Justice created the Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement (J-CODE) team in 2018 to leverage the power of federal and international partnerships to combat the complex and deadly threat of online drug sales.
Now in its second year, J-CODE is delivering results through coordinated efforts and the commitment of the nation’s law enforcement agencies to address opioid sales on the Darknet. Building on the success of last year’s Operation Disarray, the J-CODE team led Operation SaboTor between January and March of this year. These concentrated operations in the United States and abroad led to 61 arrests and shut down 50 Darknet accounts used for illegal activity. Agents executed 65 search warrants, seizing more than 299 kilograms of drugs, 51 firearms, and more than $7 million ($4.504 million in cryptocurrency, $2.485 million in cash, and $40,000 in gold).
“This is a new and evolving threat, and we found that no one agency can do it alone.”
Maggie Blanton, special agent, FBI Hi-Tech Organized Crime Unit
J-CODE joins the efforts of the FBI with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Department of Defense (DOD). As many of these markets cross borders, Europol is also an invaluable international partner in J-CODE’s efforts to make a global impact on Darknet drug trafficking.
“This is a new and evolving threat, and we found that no one agency can do it alone,” said FBI Special Agent Maggie Blanton of the Hi-Tech Organized Crime Unit at FBI Headquarters. “The FBI may get information from local law enforcement after an overdose or arrest. Through that tip, we can work with our federal partners with the Postal Inspection Service, because so often the drugs are moving through the mail. Our Customs and Border Protection partners are a great resource on understanding trends and preventing drugs from coming into the country from abroad, and our partnership with DEA is critical because of their experience and expertise with drug cases.”
The evidence gathered from that overdose death in Knoxville, for example, was shared with local law enforcement and then with USPIS, the FBI, and other partners. The eight-month investigation led to the arrest of five suspects in the Los Angeles area in March 2019 who are believed to be behind at least two online drug sites that shipped out an estimated 1,500 parcels each month. Search warrants carried out on a residence rented by the suspects and two of their vehicles uncovered drugs, a loaded gun, mailing supplies, computers, cell phones, and transaction receipts.
FBI Special Agent Nathan Cocklin said members of his Hi-Tech Organized Crime squad from the Los Angeles Field Office, along with USPIS inspectors, interviewed the suspects as they were brought into custody. He said the suspects claimed they were just running a business, making money, and not considering the impact of their online sales. “It’s a transaction only,” Cocklin said of the Darknet marketplaces. “They don’t even know each other’s real names.” He said the suspects never considered that a package dropped in a mailbox in Southern California could mean the loss of a life in eastern Tennessee.