Learn more about hidden drug markets on Thursday's episode of Black Market, 8:30 PM on SBS VICELAND
Dread Pirate Roberts captained a ship that many thought was unsinkable. But when the FBI seized the original Silk Road on October 1, 2013, and arrested the alleged kingpin—29-year-old Ross Ulbricht—the online drug empire began to capsize. Its hundreds of thousands of customers scattered across the Deep Web, and up to seven known Silk Road vendors were identified and arrested.
As the chaos unraveled into the mainstream and stories of Dread Pirate Roberts's (DPR) alleged murder-for-hire antics made headlines, one prominent Silk Road drug syndicate sat in their European safe house with a ton of opium and a decision to make—would they cut their losses and disappear into the ether while they were still ahead, or keep their lucrative online drugs network running in the midst of all this extra attention?
The displaced drug syndicate, known on the Deep Web as the Scurvy Crew (TSC), decided to go back to work. For them, back to work meant laundering Bitcoins, vacuum-packing drug parcels, and jumping the Moroccan border with bags full of uncut drugs. Silk Road may have died a sudden death at the hands of the authorities, but as one of the highest-rated vendors before the FBI shut-down, the Scurvy Crew saw its demise as an opportunity to diversify.
After six months of negotiation, via encrypted email and several phone calls from throwaway SIM cards, the boss of the Scurvy Crew agreed to meet me. He told me he would explain to me the inner workings of his Deep Web drug venture, from its humble beginnings to the near million-dollar profits it now apparently generates. Known to me only by the pseudonym "Ace," the boss claimed to represent a new breed of drug dealer.
"I don't do this just for the money," he wrote to me via email. "I like to provide a premium service."
Ace agreed to meet with me because he wanted to prove that the world of high-end Deep Web drug dealing is a network of complex, unique, and even respectable operations—not the underworld of fumbled contract killings and Bitcoin scams that the media often focuses on. I wanted to write about how someone (who's still currently at large) becomes a successful Silk Road businessman, and Ace was exactly that. I'd also discovered that he was possibly the last person to communicate with Ross Ulbricht before he was arrested last October in a San Francisco library.
I was told to fly out to somewhere in mainland Europe, but I had to be vetted before I could meet Ace. He asked for my full name, date of birth, flight numbers, arrival times, passport number, hotel address, and even what means of transport I'd use to get from the airport to the hotel. I gave him what he asked for and was told that Scurvy Crew associates were "running" my details.
After a few days of radio silence, the Scurvy Crew made contact again. When the message they'd sent me decrypted, the only words written were: "Don't move from the airport until you have instructions." It seemed a little ominous, but I decided to take a flight out to the agreed location and wait.
Arriving at the airport, I did as I was told, waiting for a phone call from the gang that, in Silk Road's early days, was supposedly responsible for 30 percent of the money that flowed through the website. After 20 minutes, my phone rang. It was Ace.
"Make your way to the nearest train station," he said. "My guys are nearby."
I left the airport and made for the train. As it pulled off, Ace rang me again to confirm that his guys had just seen me get on the train and that everything was running smoothly.
"One of my people is on the train with you as well."
Five minutes later, another call came in. Ace instructed me to alight at the next station and walk into the plaza nearby. I sat around for a few minutes and tried to guess who, out of the hundreds of people walking around me, could be the Scurvy Crew footmen on my tail.
Another call. Ace.
"OK, I can see you now," he said. "When I walk up to you, just say hi and follow me."
Within a minute of hanging up the phone, a tall but otherwise nondescript white guy of about 35 approached me and nodded.
"Ace?" I asked.
The man grinned and shook my hand, while I remained preoccupied by the fact he looked more like a hungover accountant than your archetypal drugs boss.
I followed Ace for about 15 minutes as we walked to a more secluded area of the city, eventually making our way into a small dingy bar, where some tables and chairs were set out upstairs. Ace asked me to empty my bag out onto one of the tables. I unzipped the duffle bag and poured out my stuff. He searched through my crumpled shirts and notepads, combed through the inside lining of my bag and asked me to hand over my passport and my phone. The battery was removed from my phone and my passport was scanned over, presumably to check that the number I'd given previously corresponded with the one on the hard copy.
After a few minutes of precise security checks, Ace was happy I was who I claimed to be.
"It's nothing personal," he said. "You just can't be too careful in this game."
Was he the real Ace, though, or was this one of his footmen trying to trick me?
To prove he was who he said he was, he pulled out a small laptop and logged in using the same PGP key we'd been communicating with for months. He also logged into the Scurvy Crew user account on the new Silk Road—Silk Road 2.0, a replica launched on November 6 that's supposedly run by former staff members of the original site. While it serves a purpose, Silk Road 2.0 is riddled with errors, Bitcoin theft, internal drama, and hacking attempts.
However, it still seems to be the main point of business for Deep Web drug dealing, something that quickly became apparent when Ace showed me his seemingly never-ending order list for that day—requests for Spanish opium, Moroccan hash, and crystal LSD stacked up one after the other as he scrolled down the screen.
I wanted to know how this guy ended up working his way down a path that eventually led to Silk Road notoriety and a flourishing business of international drug trafficking. Ace rolled up his sleeves, anxiously looked around the bar, then sat down opposite me. As he began to tell me his story, his demeanor switched; he took on the role of a professional in his element, like when a wealthy gambler explains the intricacies of his winning technique.
Some of The Scurvy Crew's acid
It turns out that Ace started his narcotics career in a more traditional way: small-time street dealing. "Me and group of guys were [dealing drugs] out of a European city, I guess about four years ago now," he told me. "We were selling what everyone wanted—coke, weed, pills. We were a group of four runners, and I was organizing them and getting the restocks in. Eventually, one guy got arrested, then another guy got arrested, and then we figured it was too much of an expendable business doing it that way. So we gave it a break. Each man went his own way and we started trying to make a living in a more legit way."
However, the legitimate path proved boring for Ace, so he went traveling with the proceeds of his previous job. In 2011, a couple of years into his trip, he was lured back into selling drugs after learning about Silk Road from a group of Australian tourists he'd met in Spain.
"In Australia, it's hard to get decent drugs at a decent price, so these girls used [Silk Road] a lot," he said. "I took on board the idea [of dealing on the Deep Web]. I did about four months' research. I did quite a few purchases and saw that this was a viable option. So I then started thinking about what I could sell. Being in Spain, where I was at the time, it's quite well known that Bayer grows opium there, in tightly controlled, private military-guarded fields."
Ace was referring to the German pharmaceutical company Bayer, whose chemists were ironically the first to produce and market heroin to the public in the late 1890s. Ace claims to have it on good knowledge that the company still grows high-quality opium in Spain, which they cultivate for use as an ingredient in some of their products. When I tried to confirm Ace's allegation with experts, one drug researcher told me that it actually isn't all that unlikely; pharmaceutical companies, via third parties, supposedly buy poppies from all over the world to extract opium for scientific or medicinal use. And when I contacted Julien Little, Bayer's UK spokesperson, I was told that, while they themselves don't grow opium, it's "possible that Bayer use closely monitored contract farming" for cultivating opium.
So Ace may well have stumbled upon a crop of somebody's premature golden brown. And going by the incredibly high-quality opium and armed guards he said were at these poppy fields, he was certain he'd found a professional pharmaceutical supplier's camp, even if there was no way to verify it completely.
"To find such fields you've got to study the news articles that come out [about them]. Then you've got to either bribe reporters for the locations or you've got to be 'in the know' with certain farmers," he said. "As soon as you've got the rough area, then you drive around while the flowers are in bloom and come back two months' later when the poppies are green but the petals have fallen off."
Equipped with his newfound knowledge of Silk Road, a machete, and a sack, Ace decided one night in 2011 that he'd take the risk and sneak into one of these fields. After a night trawling through the dirt and the poppy stems, he came home with a sizable amount of opium to extract, quickly going on to sell his product on Silk Road and reaping modest but steady profits. To avoid drawing attention to his new line of work, he set up a small limited business to launder his Bitcoins through. After the first month, Ace was sold. Silk Road would become his battleground in his war against the War on Drugs.
To keep up with demand, he eventually hired a few local friends to help with the poppy cultivation. It was at this point, as people sat in the comfort of their homes ordering Ace's opium over the internet, that the danger of his new line of work became all too real. Late one night, as Ace and his associates crept through the opium fields, scoping out the maturity of the poppy heads, they heard gun shots ring out from the distance. Bullets skimmed past above them and tore through the brush. The private security guards were close by.
"I thought to myself, 'They can't be firing at us,'" Ace told me, recalling the night with a look of horror. "So we started crawling around on our hands and knees; then suddenly my friend screams. He'd been shot in the leg."
His friend writhed around on the ground with a hot bullet hole in his thigh, before Ace and the others grabbed the injured party and dragged him through the poppy field: "We were begging that these crazy cunts didn't see the poppies moving," he told me.
Driven by the adrenaline and the fear of catching a bullet, Ace and his friends made it the short distance out of the poppy field to their car. "We dumped him in the back of the car," he recalled. "It was lights off all the way to the end [of the path] through these olive groves to get out the back. My friend's bleeding out in the back of the car, so we took him to a vet we know who stitches us up if we get into trouble."
His friend survived. Ace thought about this for a minute and said: "I don't think [the private security] even thought there was anyone in the fields… they just thought it'd be fun to fire into the poppies."
This close shave made Ace realize that risks had to be taken to get the best drugs. So instead of shying away from the task, he decided that a trustworthy crew of hard workers was needed to progress to the quality of business he'd set his sights on.
"The Scurvy Crew properly started on a hash run from Morocco to the south of Spain," he said. "Basically, I joined a couple of friends who decided to see what the hype was about, because everyone at that point was smuggling hash in from Morocco as a little earner on the side. Me, coming from the coke and MDMA business previously, didn't really have any clientele when it came to selling bulk amounts of hash, or even single deals—but now I had Silk Road. So I then used that as a way to sell what I'd bring back from Morocco."
Ace was at the top of the Scurvy Crew, allowing him not to rule with an iron fist but to demonstrate the premium service and integrity he believed could be applied to the drugs game exclusively through the use of Silk Road. Sure enough, his crew became a trusted and reliable name on Silk Road. Judging by their feedback, you can see that what they branded as their "Bayer opium" was the best out there. Plus, no one else was selling it—and probably for good reason. As Ace put it, "Not many sellers have got the balls to go into an armed field and steal opium."
The money increased, and the Scurvy Crew matured. Ace now had runners and packagers working for him; within the space of six months he'd gone from a one-man seller crawling around in the dirt to having a team of people helping him shift his product. The opium and the hash moved out almost as quickly as it came in. Ace couldn't handle all the volume himself, so he purchased two safe houses to process his product. Soon, the business was a well-oiled machine with even more dedicated staff members.
"We have a team of our guys go out to the fields. They collect the opium and dry it, which is about a ten-day process—you have to knead it all the time, like dough, to get all the air out. Then you get the moisture out. The drier the opium, the higher the quality," explained Ace.
"Then, inside the safe houses, the opium is heated up; it's rolled into a thin layer using a pasta machine and comes up to about cardboard thin. As soon as that's ready, it's cut up into blocks. We use a guillotine to slice it—each square being a gram, or five grams, or ten grams. As soon as the order comes in in the morning [from Silk Road], the address is printed for that order. And then it goes into two layers [to be packed]. One is a vacuum-sealed layer, and the other's an MBB [moisture barrier bag] layer. Then it's put into a letter and sent on its way all around the world. It's a production line. And if we're talking about sending out, say, 1,000 grams a week now, maybe we're losing 10 or 20 grams [to customs], so it's definitely worth it."
Taking around $14 profit per gram, the Scurvy Crew is now making around $14,000 a week on their opium alone.
Even by the end of 2012, after roughly one year in business, Ace was making "far too much money" for his limited company to be a viable option when it came to laundering his profits. Normally, to find an accountant dodgy enough to help him wash that much money, he'd have to mix in circles he just didn't have the criminal prowess to get into, even if he'd wanted to. Again, though, thanks to the endless connections from Silk Road, Ace was only a few mouse clicks away from someone who could lend him a hand.
"I found a very good forger who has always helped the Scurvy Crew with a good 'cash-out service,'" said Ace. "He's created us accounts in America, Switzerland… and what he does is utilize the main three Bitcoin exchanges [to sell the Bitcoins]. The cash goes directly into the faked accounts in Switzerland and the US."
With money coming in fast, the Scurvy Crew lived a more comfortable lifestyle. They ate well, they bought property, and they traveled often. But thanks to Ace's ethics, he claimed, the people he bought his hash from also became wealthy.
Some of The Scurvy Crew's Moroccan hash
"Over the years we made personal relationships with the [hash] farmers in Morocco," said Ace. "What I noticed is that there was quite a lot of farms that were completely derelict—they didn't even have toilets. [The people there] were just shitting in a hole in the ground."
While trekking out to Ketama and Azila in the Moroccan mountains to buy this high-altitude hash, Ace decided he'd give something back to the farmers who had helped him make his small fortune. "We made exclusivity arrangements with the farmers, because of the amounts that we buy. So we decided to give them a lump sum at the beginning to help them improve living conditions," he said.
One mutually helpful deal specifically stuck out in his mind: "One of the farmer's wives was really sick and couldn't afford the medical help, so we made an agreement with this farmer where we'd pay for his wife's medical care and some basic refurbishments, as it gets really fucking cold up there in the winter. So we installed basic heating, a toilet, got his wife seen to, gave a bit extra to install an irrigation system. So eventually, when the first crop was ready after three months, we took that for free in exchange for the help we'd given. Now we have a great working relationship where, as soon as the hash is ready, we've got someone who goes over and pays the farmers up front for it. We bring it back. That's been going really well now for two years."
With the opium and the hash flowing, thousands of customers on Silk Road were now consistently buying the Scurvy Crew's products and leaving positive feedback, commending their drugs and also the stealth and speed in which they arrived. Business was good, their reviews were excellent, and Dread Pirate Roberts himself was happy with Ace's progress. The two spoke often. It was a "working relationship."
"We stayed in good contact," said Ace.
The first time I actually saw Ace's name on Silk Road was while trawling the forums in the wake of Ross Ulbricht's arrest. The forums are now gone, but Ace—as far as I could see—was the very first person to raise a red flag about Dread Pirate Roberts before news of the arrest hit the media. On October 1, 2013, Ace made a comment that effectively said: "I think something is wrong with DPR." Around 30 minutes later, the forums were awash with the news of Dread Pirate Roberts' alleged capture.
Naturally, Ace was cagey when I asked him about this. "I had a feeling something was up," he said.
Judging by the time and date that Ace was chatting to Dread Pirate Roberts, he believes they were literally "halfway through a conversation when [Ross] got arrested."
"I think one message that I sent to DPR was answered by him, and the next message I sent one minute later was answered by an FBI agent," he explained. "It was the weirdest thing ever. We were in the process of discussing adding a couple of features to the site—I could tell it was him because it was the normal way that he used to speak—then the next message I got was in a completely, completely different manner of writing."
Ace said Dread Pirate Roberts suddenly asked for a copy of his ID. This isn't that unusual, as it's known that DPR would gather personal information on those working in his inner circle, but to drop it into conversation at random was unsettling for Ace.
"I just cut the conversation there. That minute I got on the forums and said, 'Hey guys, I think something weird is going on.' The thing that struck me as really weird was that [the message] was encrypted with [DPR's] PGP key, and his key-ring was still open, so I know from that moment they were on his computer."
This was also the moment when Ace's business hit the rocks. The original Silk Road was seized by the FBI, and all the Bitcoins resting in its escrow service were swallowed up with it. That's an estimated $28.5 million of Silk Road booty taken by the authorities.
"The Scurvy Crew lost over $500,000 in the fall of Silk Road 1," said Ace, looking pained about his losses even now. "The troubles [of the Silk Road seizure] didn't last long, though," he continued. "I think within two weeks of it shutting down we were up and running on both the other markets."
The "other markets" were the alternative online drugs bazaars at the time: Sheep Marketplace and Black Market Reloaded. Both had been operating at the same time as Silk Road, but remained in the shadow of Dread Pirate Roberts and his superior marketplace. With that ship sunk, however, Silk Road users migrated to the former competitors. The influx was almost unmanageable.
Backopy, the founder of Black Market Reloaded, had to close new registrations for three days after his traffic increased from around 2,000 new users a day to over 5,000. Sheep Marketplace went from having 500 drug listings to 1,500, just a few days after Silk Road's departure from the Deep Web. Both markets, however, have now fallen into the abyss. Sheep Marketplace went AWOL with thousands of its users' Bitcoins, and Black Market Reloaded shut down completely on December 23, 2013. Backopy's reasoning for this was that his marketplace couldn't "hold another wave of refugees" after Sheep Marketplace disappeared. He said on the Black Market Reloaded forums that "Tor can't support any site to be too big," allowing time for his 30,755 registered users to escape with their Bitcoins.
Sheep Marketplace, one of the alternatives to Silk Road
With a flawless track record, the purest opium and hash on tap, and a position so trusted on the original Silk Road that Dread Pirate Roberts's associates still had contact with Ace, the Scurvy Crew has managed to weather each Deep Web drug storm exceptionally well. The crew is now on Silk Road 2.0, rebuilding its client base (many of whom loyally follow the Scurvy Crew around the Deep Web) and looking to branch out into selling other drugs.
However, while Ace is still currently at large, his position as boss means he rarely has to get his hands dirty any more. "I get up in the morning and check the shitloads of messages I always have," he laughed. "I go through them and create a work list, which I split into two, because the opium and the hash are stored at different safe houses. I send one of the opium lists over to the opium safe house, which means all the packages need to be made ready for that day. I send the other list to the hash safe house, and I expect both of [the packages on the list] to be posted by 4 PM that day. Then the cycle repeats itself. I spend the rest of the day talking to my team and organizing the business."
At this point Ace again demonstrated (perhaps to prove he wasn't bullshitting) that he really is "about that life," flicking through several big orders on Silk Road 2.0 that he'd just received. By this point there was little doubt in my mind that Ace was who he claimed to be. He seemed genuine enough and always eager to show me evidence of his statements. He was clearly proud of the business he'd built and the money he'd managed to make himself and the others he's recruited to help.
"Do you know what it's like to be able to get up every morning and decide that you want to go have dinner in Paris?" he asked me. "Or buy a new car because you're bored of your old one, or have houses in loads of different places? It's a life I never thought I'd have."
He said this not with a bragging tone, but one of astonishment. I sensed that it was cathartic for Ace to have someone to speak honestly to about his business. He was clearly work driven and living the life of Riley, but the dark, tired rings around his eyes hinted at the toll a lifestyle of such secrecy has on a person.
"The downside is the lies," he said. "There are days when I'd rather do the nine-to-five than have to constantly watch my back, constantly worry about who's knocking on the door, or where I can go, or whether someone is following me down the street. I don't know what details the FBI have got of me—all I know is I've got to keep going and have fun while I'm doing it; otherwise it's not worth it."
He finished our interview with the caveat that he was more scared of losing the fight against the authorities than spending his life in prison. Having spoken to my fair share of criminals, I'd heard this spiel a hundred times—only, Ace might actually have meant it. There was no boasting and no self-trickery, just a matter-of-fact honesty. He believed in what he did.
After two hours of chatting, it was time to leave. I collected my stuff and thanked Ace, and while I was most likely being watched, I was allowed to leave the bar unescorted.
When I eventually found my way back to the train station, something caught my eye. I looked up and saw a huge rotating Bayer sign.
There is no suggestion that Bayer buy opium for any illegal purpose or market any illicit drugs. There is also no suggestion that Bayer knew about the shooting at Ace or would condone such activity.
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