When German police took down the dark web marketplace DarkMarket in January, they did more than shutter the largest underground online drug bazaar operating at that time. They also nabbed more than 20 servers in Moldova and Ukraine, infrastructure that contained a host of information about the site’s buyers and sellers. Today, a joint operation of the US Justice Department, Europol, and a host of other agencies revealed the payoff: 150 arrests spread across eight countries; over 230 kilograms of drugs and $31.6 million in cash and cryptocurrency seized, and an apparent shift in law enforcement strategy that puts more focus on dark web vendors than the sites themselves.
Operation Dark HunTor isn’t the first international bust of its kind. (The name is a pun on Tor, the anonymity browser that enables dark web access.) Last year’s Operation DisrupTor netted a similar number of arrests and double the drug seizures. DarkMarket is also not the only dark web marketplace to have its servers seized. In 2018, Dutch police actually ran Hansa themselves for nearly a month. But something about this recent roundup feels a little different.
“It seems that the police are now using data recovered from seized marketplaces to try to go after what I presume are large vendors, as opposed to taking down a bunch of markets at the same time,” says Nicolas Christin, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University who follows the dark web closely. “It is a bit of a shift in tactics.”
That shift resulted in the arrest of some seemingly significant players in the dark web drug trade. Prosecutors allege that Hyun Ji Martin and her associates mailed 1,600 packages throughout the US under fictional names. Jonathan Patrick Turrentine allegedly rang up nearly 1,000 positive reviews on Empire, one of several marketplaces through which he sold an assortment of drugs, as well as compromised emails and passwords. Albie Pagan, court documents say, had gross proceeds of over $1 million on Wall Street Market alone. And that’s just from three of the 65 US-based arrests. The remainder of the alleged dark web denizens were spread across Australia, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the UK.