When they sold drugs on the dark web, their customers knew them as "Cannabars" and "The Fast Plug."
Now, Jose Robert Porras III, 21, and Pasia Vue, 23, of Sacramento have been charged on 16 counts of drug distribution, money laundering and illegally possessing firearms in the first nationwide undercover operation that specifically targeted vendors trading illegal goods via the dark web, according to the United States Department of Justice.
Porras and Vue are two of more than thirty-five individuals arrested as a result of a yearlong operation involving Homeland Security Investigations, the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
For the operation, special agents from Homeland Security posed as money launderers on trading websites such as Silk Road and Dream Marketplace, which are accessible only by encrypted means. The undercover agents offered dealers like Porras and Vue the service of exchanging cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, which are appealing to tech-savvy criminals because they can't be simply tracked by third parties, into U.S. dollars, according to the Department of Justice.
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Over a period of about nine months, Porras and Vue sent agents seven installments of bitcoin. In exchange, the agents shipped bundles of cash totaling $73,000 to the Sacramento residences of the defendants, who were dating at the time, according to a June 14 court indictment obtained by The Sacramento Bee.
In the investigation, agents determined the couple were mailing narcotics across state and international borders, and that they kept a stockpile of illicit items in a leased storage unit.
On May 21, Homeland Security filed a criminal complaint calling for the search of the couple's residence, storage unit and vehicle.
The agency along with postal agents subsequently "seized nine weapons including an AK-47 magazine and ammunition, 30 pounds of marijuana, $10,000 in U.S. currency, a vehicle and over 100 bars of Xanax," from the couple, according to a Department of Justice news release.
Porras and Vue were arrested and indicted by a grand jury in the Eastern District of California. Other suspects from San Luis Obispo and Mariposa were indicted by a grand jury in Fresno, and suspects in New York, Maryland, Ohio and Vermont were also charged by U.S. Attorney's Offices as part of the sweep.
“The Darknet is ever-changing and increasingly more intricate, making locating and targeting those selling illicit items on this platform more complicated," Derek Benner, Homeland Security Investigations executive associate director, said in the news release. "But in this case, HSI special agents were able to walk amongst those in the cyber underworld to find those vendors who sell highly addictive drugs for a profit,”
The dark web, sometimes referred to as the darknet, is not accessible by traditional means. Instead, users download a web browser called Tor that enables them to access otherwise invisible sites anonymously. Although the dark web is commonly understood as a destination for illegal activity, there is nothing intrinsically criminal about its setup.
“Criminals who think that they are safe on the Darknet are wrong,” Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said in the news release. “We can expose their networks, and we are determined to bring them to justice."
In total, the national operation seized more than $23.6 million in bitcoin and state-backed currencies. The operation also raked in a massive haul of illicitly traded goods, including 24 kilograms of Xanax, more than 100 firearms, 333 bottles of opioids and hundreds of thousands of pain pills.
The indictment comes after a separate Homeland Security investigation in February that resulted in a Grass Valley man pleading guilty to making and selling illegal "ghost guns," AR-15 style assault weapons without serial numbers.