A global police sting has netted 179 vendors involved in selling opioids, methamphetamine and other illegal goods on the internet underground, in what officials of Europol said Tuesday put an end to the "golden age" of dark web markets.
Over nine months Operation DisrupTor seized 500 kilogrammes of drugs including cocaine, heroin, oxycodone and methamphetamine, more than $6.5 million (5.5 million euros) in cash and online currencies, as well as well as 64 guns, Europe's police agency said.
Led by the German federal criminal police, the operation saw law agencies pounce in Austria, Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States, breaking up networks of buyers and sellers of narcotics and other illegal goods on the internet's premium anonymous bazaars including AlphaBay, Dream, WallStreet, Nightmare, Empire, White House and others.
"This takedown provided investigators with... data and materials to identify suspects behind dark web accounts used for illegal activity", Europol said in a statement.
Some 121 suspects were arrested in the US, followed by 42 in Germany, eight in the Netherlands, four in Britain, three in Austria, and one in Sweden.
A number of investigations were still ongoing, Europol said.
Operation DisrupTor followed a law agency shutdown in May 2019 of the Wall Street Market, the second largest dark web exchange, which had more than 1.1 million users and 5,400 vendors.
"Today's announcement sends a strong message to criminals buying and selling illicit goods on the dark web," said Edvardas Sileris, who heads Europol's EC3 cybercrime centre.
"The hidden internet is no longer hidden and your anonymous activity is not anonymous," Sileris said, with Europol adding "the golden age of the dark web marketplace is over."
US Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said the dark net fed an opioid addiction crisis that caused more than 1,000 overdose deaths a week in 2018 in the United States alone, and has grown worse with the Covid-19 pandemic.
"Criminals selling fentanyl on the Darknet should pay attention to Operation DisrupTor," Rosen said.
The operation "shows that there will be no safe haven for drug dealing in cyberspace."
The arrests counted by the US included two made in Canada, where one suspect allegedly procured highly dangerous fentanyl analogues from China to mail to US buyers.
Those drugs were traced to at least two overdoses, including one death.
US officials also arrested two men, including a pharmacist, who sold prescription opioids over the dark net and had plotted to firebomb a competitor pharmacy in Nebraska.
The men were arrested in April 2020 as they waited for an end to Covid-19 restrictions to carry out the attack, the US Justice Department said.
US officials made clear they were able to track individuals and virtual currency transactions despite the protections offered by the anonymous Tor software underpinning the dark net.
"Operation DisrupTor demonstrates the ability of DEA and our partners to outpace these digital criminals in this ever-changing domain, by implementing innovative ways to identify traffickers attempting to operate anonymously and disrupt these criminal enterprises," said Timothy Shea, acting administrator of the US Drug Enforcement Administration.