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International crackdown on online drug markets leads to 17 arrests, multiple shutdowns

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The international law enforcement push that led to the arrest of alleged Silk Road 2 operator Blake Benthall has also shut down several other online drug and illegal goods marketplaces and made over a dozen arrests. This morning, Europol revealed the extent of Operation Onymous, a mission carried out with the help of Eurojust, the FBI, the US Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies. According to a statement, 17 sellers and site admins were arrested, and around 410 hidden services ("darknet" servers that are accessible only through a browser using privacy software Tor) were shut down. The operation seized $1 million in bitcoins, the preferred currency of darknet markets, along with around $225,000 (€180,000) in "cash, drugs, gold, and silver."

Some major markets are still online so far

It's not clear exactly what was shut down, but a thread on Reddit's darknet markets forum has kept a running tally of potential victims. So far, that includes Hydra, Cloud Nine, BlueSky, Pandora, Alpaca, and other sites that sprung up as law enforcement took down the original Silk Road bazaar in 2013. Some major markets appear to have escaped the shutdown, including Evolution and Agora, an invitation-only site that reportedly had more listings than Silk Road 2 as of September. But there's understandable suspicion that the operation isn't completely over, whether that means more markets will be going down or they've simply been infiltrated by law enforcement, as Silk Road 2 was.

In addition to Benthall, Irish law enforcement announced yesterday that they had arrested two men in a darknet drug bust, seizing around $2 million in bitcoins. Benthall himself was arrested due to what seem in hindsight like a series of obvious mistakes, including using an email address that included his name to register the Silk Road 2 servers and failing to mask his IP address when contacting the service providers. He also tweeted references to the Silk Road and to making bitcoin payments. He was charged in court yesterday, and if convicted, he faces life in prison on money laundering, narcotics trafficking, and other charges. In his brief hearing, a prosecutor said he "did admit to everything," although he has not made a formal plea.

This is the second major operation against darknet markets. The first Silk Road, which launched in 2011, was shut down in October of 2013, and its alleged operator Ross Ulbricht was arrested; his trial is currently set for early next year. Silk Road 2 was launched a month later, and Benthall is supposed to have taken over in December, after which he ran it continuously. It's not clear whether operators of the other sites shut down in the raid have been arrested, and if so, where they were located, but law enforcement is calling its action a clear victory. "One of the primary targets was the Silk Road guy," European Cybercrime Center head Troels Oerting told Wired yesterday. "But we also decided to see if we could identify more of the administrators of these sites and remove their infrastructure as well ... Some moved before we could act, but we've taken most of our targets down."