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This article was published on May 3, 2023

Europol’s Operation SpecTor leads to massive dark web drug bust

The ‘unprecedented’ crackdown led to hundreds of arrests over three continents – with more to come

Europol’s Operation SpecTor leads to massive dark web drug bust

Coordinated by Europol and the US Department of Justice, yesterday, Operation SpecTor seized over €50mn in cash and cryptocurrency, 850 kg of drugs (including amphetamines, cocaine, MDMA and ecstasy pills) and 117 firearms. The latter, contrary to Europol’s choice of emoji, were in all likelihood not water pistols.


The arrested vendors were operating on the marketplace Monopoly Market, selling drugs to customers in exchange for digital currencies. Monopoly has been active since 2019, and one of the candidates hoping for a bigger slice of the darknet pie after law enforcement shut down its highest earner Hydra in April 2022. 

“This operation sends a strong message to criminals on the dark web: international law enforcement has the means and the ability to identify and hold you accountable for your illegal activities, even on the dark web,” Europol’s Executive Director Catherine De Bolle commented

Across Europe, the synchronised arrests took place in the UK (55), Germany (52), the Netherlands (10), Austria (9), France (5), Switzerland (2) and Poland (1). Furthermore, 155 individuals were arrested in the US, and one in Brazil. Europol stated that a number of the suspects arrested were “high-value targets.” 

In addition, authorities obtained buyer lists from the vendors, which could potentially result in the arrests of “thousands of customers” across the globe. 

Transaction data sped up investigations

German law enforcement managed to seize the “criminal infrastructure” supporting the site in 2021. Since then, they have been able to gather intelligence packages that have served as the basis for hundreds of national investigations. 

“The intelligence that Europol shared with us, such as transaction data and virtual currency addresses, helped us to start new investigations and to enrich existing investigations,” the leader of the Dutch team, Nan van de Coevering, told media in the Netherlands. 

In the US, the operation was led by the Department of Justice’s Joint Criminal and Opioid Darknet Enforcement (JCODE) team, set up in 2018. According to US Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, SpecTor “represents the most funds seized and the highest number of arrests in any coordinated international action led by the Justice Department against drug traffickers on the dark web.” 

The 18-month long SpecTor operation is the latest in a row of aptly named high-profile darknet busts by international law enforcement. DisrupTor took place in 2020 with 179 arrests, and Dark HunTor in 2021 with 150 arrests. 

Before it was shut down last year, Russia-based Hydra had about 17 million customers and focused on the trade of illicit drugs, cyberattack tools, forged documents and stolen data. 

Hydra had an estimated revenue of €1.23bn, and German authorities seized €23mn in cryptocurrencies during the bust. Following its shutdown, there was an immediate sector-wide precipitous decline in daily dark web market revenues, from around €4 million to close to €400,000, according to research from Chainalysis.

Closing down Monopoly may not have the same effect, but the ripples will be felt throughout the darknet nonetheless. 

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