Gardaí hit global drug ring hiding in ‘darknet’

Gardaí have cracked an international online drugs trafficking operation involving criminals using sophisticated secret internet networks to buy and sell supplies.

Drug deals worth millions of euro are believed to have been disrupted by the Irish arm of the worldwide investigation coordinated by Europol and the FBI.

Two men described by gardaí as “significant” players in the international drugs trade were arrested during a swoop on a distribution centre in Dublin, where drugs, including ecstasy and LSD, were seized.

Crucially, gardaí were also able to seize and preserve computers expected to yield invaluable information about the nature and scope of the trafficking operation, its operators and client list.

The criminals used a hidden layer of the internet known as the ‘darknet’ that enables users to transact anonymously. To further cover their tracks they transacted deals in Bitcoins, the virtual currency gaining ground globally as a means of electronic payment.

Detective Chief Superintendent John O’Driscoll, who led the investigation here, said it was indicative of the rapidly evolving drugs trade that gardaí were not just chasing dealers on the street but pursuing them in cyberspace.

“The world of drugs has changed. In the modern era, business is done, like everything else, on the internet,” he said.

The investigation, involving the Garda National Drug Unit, Criminal Assets Bureau and the Computer Crime Investigation Unit, was part of an international day of action by police forces across the world, code-named Onymous. It was only revealed yesterday, but the arrests took place on Wednesday.

Both men were arrested at a rented business unit on South Circular Road. In their 30s and Irish, they can be held for up to seven days.

“They are significant people,” said Detective Chief Supt O’Driscoll.

A follow-up search in nearby Harold’s Cross yesterday yielded more drugs as well as documents about off-shore bank accounts in Switzerland, Belize and Poland.

The value of the drugs found so far is modest — around €180,000 — but Detective Chief Supt O’Driscoll said transactions worth millions of euro had been exposed. The exercise was invaluable, he said, in that it had broken through what had been considered an impenetrable network.

“We are particularly glad that we have been able to contribute to the worldwide effort at giving a signal to those who thought they had a mechanism of selling drugs whereby it couldn’t be infiltrated by law enforcement. We have brought about a situation where people will have to rethink that.”

He said more arrests were expected and warned that the people on the client list, including those who bought drugs for personal use, would also be pursued.

“It will be an education to those who think they can not be traced and, as we progress through the investigation, those people will have to be interviewed. They are the purchasers; they are accomplices in the crime.”

The darknet

The darknet is a hidden layer of the internet that admits select users to heavily encrypted networks designed to assure anonymity and cover digital tracks.

It originated in the US defence forces as a means of encrypted communications.

It has been hailed as an aid to democracy by enabling reform movements in oppressive regimes to safely share ideas but it is also used by criminals trading drugs, guns and child pornography.

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