“We act as secret agents in enemy territory”: the difficult battle to stop the sale of drugs through the dark web


At first glance, Torrez was like a normal shopping website: thousands of products listed, customer reviews with star ratings for each seller, information on delivery estimates and payment methods.

The only difference was the products themselves.

Peruvian Cocaine Fish Flakes, MDMA Champagne, Ecstasy Tablets Blue PunisherNor the type of items you would find on Amazon or eBay.

Until a few weeks ago, Torrez was a dark web marketplace where buyers could meet sellers who They sold everything from drugs and tools for rcarry out hacks on the internet even fake money and pistols Taser.

It was one of the markets of the dark web most popular in the world and the BBC became one of its last clients.

As part of research for the program File on Four From BBC Radio 4 on the dark web drug trade, we used Torrez to buy some ecstasy tablets from a UK dealer.

It was an eye-opening experience.

The purchase

There is a myth that buying drugs on the dark web is as easy as ordering a pizzaBut buying the drugs with cryptocurrencies and communicating in an encrypted chat with the seller took hours.

A large box containing only three small pills.

BBC
The drugs arrived in a box that concealed its contents.

The “super strong” tablets arrived as promised, in a couple of days through the mail.

The three small ecstasy tablets came in an oversized box, an example of “hidden packaging.” which is used to disguise the content.

A drug dealer’s cocaine package bought elsewhere came with a fake bill from a herbal health products company.

The BBC had the drugs tested (they were less strong than we were led to believe) and then a laboratory destroyed them.

The UN estimates that dark web markets account for a small fraction of the total global drug trade, perhaps less than 1%, even though that fraction is growing.

But a survey conducted last year among tens of thousands of drug users around the world, the Global Drug Survey, paints a different picture.

In 2021, nearly one in four respondents in North America reported purchasing drugs on the dark web, and more than one in six in Europe and Oceania. In Russia the figure was 86%, in Finland and Sweden more than 40% and more than 30% in England, Scotland and Poland.

The number of dark web drug markets in English declined last year, but the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) says revenue grew 14%.

Fake bill for cocaine.

BBC
The cocaine bought by the BBC came with an invoice that pretended that it was a product from a health food store.

Announced closings

The world of drugs on the dark web is chaotic and constantly changing.

Occasionally, sites go down and operators disappear with money from customers or suppliers; This is known as an exit scam. They can also be hacked or arrested by the police and disconnected.

But there is a new trend for markets to close in an orderly manner, known as “sunsetting” or “voluntary withdrawal.”

One big player in this market, White House Market, did this last fall, then another, Cannazon, did the same.

And then came Torrez, who posted a letter on its home page last month announcing its closure and saying it had been “a great pleasure working with most of the providers and users.”

The site administrator, mrblonde, thanked customers and promised that the marketplace would stay online “for at least two to three weeks until all orders are finalized.”

“Thank you for such an elegant outing, much appreciated,” posted a client. Another added: “Thank you for handling this professionally and honestly.”

Torrez drugs items

BBC
Torrez claimed to be the biggest English place on the dark web.

“Right now more seems to be happening. Markets come out gracefully and say, ‘We’ve made enough money and before they catch us, we’ll just walk away,’ says Professor David Décary-Hétu. , criminologist at the University of Montreal.

He says that managers who manage Big markets like Torrez can earn more than US$100.000 per day in commissions.

For the police, who would prefer that criminals face justice, this type of exit generates mixed feelings.

“I always celebrate anyone who may realize that they are in a criminalized occupation and decide not to continue in it,” says Alex Hudson, chief intelligence officer for the NCA’s dark web.

“If we regret something, it is that we must hold them responsible for it and they must understand that they will still be responsible“, He adds.

But while these voluntary closings are currently all the rage, BBC data analysis shows that markets are more likely to close with an exit scam.

Arrests

Closures by the Police are even less common, although there have been a number of notable successes.

The American Ross Ulbricht is serving two life sentences at age 40 without the right to conditional freedom for running the first major dark web market, Silk Road, which ran from 2011 to 2013.

Last October, 150 suspects were arrested in what the NCA called the largest operation of its kind, stemming from the January 2021 raid of a site called Dark Market.

Police from several countries were involved, with arrests made in the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

DarkHunTOR operation

FBI
Operation DarkHunTOR was carried out by the police in various countries.

But even when an illegal market closes, this can have little effect on sellers, who may simply move to a new one.

Data analyzed by the BBC show that at least 450 dealers operating today, a conservative estimate, have survived closures previous police.

These include a distributor called Next Generation, which has appeared in 21 different markets for six years.

This criminal or criminal team is estimated to have made at least 140,000 sales during that period, selling products such as cannabis, cocaine, and ketamine.

Through the encrypted email, Next Generation said that the police faced “an impossible task.”

As usual, that catch you is due to a simple user error. The forces of order do not wake up one day, ‘break a code’ and arrest people, “he said.

“Enemy territory

The Pygmalion Syndicate, a self-described “hippy collective” of traffickers from the UK and Germany, also told the BBC that they weren’t too worried about getting caught because they were very careful, like “secret agents in enemy territory.”

“The shutdowns by law enforcement have not affected our business much, and I think most other vendors don’t care, either. Really there is no reason why someone’s life should be affected for those events, ”they said.

NCA’s Alex Hudson admits that law enforcement has often been one step behind criminals, but says new technology will make a difference.

“Even compared to the situation a few years ago, we can extract information from the data they provide us and then identify criminals much faster,” he told the BBC.

“I think that what we are actually seeing is something like a change of tide,” he said.


BBC Mundo

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