Crackdown on darknet drugs websites yields 17 arrests

Seventeen people have been arrested in a series of co-ordinated raids on underground websites selling illegal drugs, a top Europol official said yesterday, in one of the largest crackdowns on the so-called ‘darknet’ to date.

Dutch prosecutors said the arrests were made in the US, Ireland, and Germany.

Head of the European police agency’s cybercrimes division Troels Oerting said it co-ordinated police operations in more than a dozen countries on Thursday from its headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands.

The raids included a US operation in which the FBI announced the arrest in San Francisco of a man accused of running the Silk Road 2.0 online bazaar, where drugs including ecstasy, cocaine, and LSD were sold openly.

“We will go after drug dealers regardless of whether they operate in the physical or virtual world,” Oerting said.

Europol said that, in addition to the Silk Road site, it has seized or shut down numerous other virtual marketplaces with names such as Hydra, Cloud Nine, Pandora, and Blue Sky. Police seized $1m (€800,000) in digital currency and $225,000 worth of cash, drugs, gold and silver.

Silk Road and similar websites are not visible on the open internet. They can only be accessed with special browsers that encrypt web traffic for transfer via the TOR network of anonymising servers — the Darknet. Buyers and sellers on the sites trade using digital currencies, usually Bitcoin.

“I think there will be more than 55 different markets shut down” when the operation is finished, Oerting said.

“We didn’t get [major sites] Agora or Evolution, because there’s only so much we can do on one day.”

Markets on the darknet have flourished since the closure of the original Silk Road in October 2013. At that time police arrested Ross Ulbrecht on suspicion of operating the site under the moniker ‘the Dread Pirate Roberts’.

Ulbrecht says he is innocent of wrongdoing.

The FBI said on Thursday it had arrested Blake Benthall, 26, on suspicion of running the Silk Road 2.0 site, which was launched weeks after the first Silk Road closed.

Benthall is set to appear in a New York federal court.

Oerting declined to give more information on arrests in other countries because he said investigations are continuing.

“In the next wave we’re going to come after people using these sites,” he said. “They might hear a knock at the door.”

He could not confirm whether any firearms or child pornography were seized in any of the raids. He said libertarian arguments that online markets reduce violent drug-related crime are wrong, as the violence merely goes unseen.

Meanwhile, six Britons have also been arrested on suspicion of being involved in running Silk Road 2.0, and one other illegal website. Men and women from Liverpool, Lincolnshire, and Aberdovey were interviewed and bailed, said the National Crime Agency.


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