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288 arrested in international crackdown targeting online drug sales, feds say

3 sons of "El Chapo" charged in fentanyl case
3 sons of "El Chapo" among dozens charged in U.S. fentanyl investigation 00:52

Washington — More than 1,800 pounds of drugs were seized and 288 people arrested in a years-long international law enforcement operation targeting darknet drug peddlers across eight countries, the Justice Department announced Tuesday.

Operation SpecTor — a nod to the Tor network, a popular haven for illicit online activities — began in October 2021 and targeted dealers in the U.S., South America and Europe. It was the largest worldwide operation cracking down on the online trafficking of opioids and fentanyl to date, Attorney General Merrick Garland said at the Justice Department's headquarters in Washington.

The result of coordinated law enforcement actions with international partners, the operation resulted in the seizure of 1,874 pounds of drugs, including more than 140 pounds of fentanyl or fentanyl-laced narcotics, as well as $53.4 million in cash and cryptocurrencies, according to the Justice Department. Fentanyl is a dangerous synthetic opioid that was responsible for the overdose deaths of more than 71,238 Americans in 2021, according to government figures.

"Our message to criminals on the dark web is this: You can try to hide in the furthest reaches of the internet, but the Justice Department will find you and hold you accountable for your crimes," Garland said.

U.S. authorities made 153 arrests and seized more than 200,000 fentanyl-laced pills as part of the operation, Garland said.

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during a news conference at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, May 2, 2023.
Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during a news conference at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, May 2, 2023.  Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Federal investigations have targeted both the work of illegal actors on the darknet and the proliferation of deadly fentanyl throughout the U.S. Last year, the FBI and law enforcement partners took down Hydra, seizing the servers of the world's largest darknet marketplace for drugs, stolen identities and other illicit goods. Investigators said the criminal exchange allowed users in mainly Russian-speaking countries to trade goods and services and launder money.

Last month, prosecutors unsealed criminal charges against 28 members and associates of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel, including the three sons of former drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, for allegedly orchestrating a transnational fentanyl trafficking operation into the U.S.

Garland said that even with these initiatives, efforts by the federal government to target crime on the darknet present a "whack-a-mole" problem for investigators, with criminals flocking from one platform to another as marketplaces are dismantled. "We are whacking as hard as we can," Garland said as he highlighted what he called the "unprecedented" results of Operation SpecTor on Tuesday.

Thirty U.S. Attorney Offices and 16 FBI field offices were part of the federal probe, according to FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate, who said darknet websites are "one-stop shopping" for criminal and drug lords. Fentanyl, Abbate said, takes too many American lives and Tuesday's announcement was part of the federal government's response.

One nation notably absent from the list of countries that participated in the law enforcement operation was Mexico. Garland said Tuesday the U.S. needs Mexico's cooperation "in all kinds of manners."

Mexico's president has recently said the fentanyl epidemic — which U.S. investigators say is propelled by Mexican drug cartels pushing drugs into the country — was a uniquely American problem that had no nexus in his country.

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