And watched firsthand how an online drug empire is run.
Deep in the Moroccan mountains a large brick building sat in the basin of a valley. It was night, and a dull light crept out from the windowless holes in the walls. I was in a car headed down a dirt track toward the building with a man calling himself "Patron" – Spanish for boss. It had taken us five hours to get there, driving up through the mountains via cliff edge roads that dotted with gendarme checkpoints. Every time we were stopped the police would open the door and shake Patron's hand – big grins on their faces.
"I'm paying these guys off all the way from here to the coast," laughed Patron.
The journey into the valley made me feel sick. The tarmac roads had ended a good five miles back and the driver had pulled several pointless 180 turns without warning, "to throw off any tracking signals". But eventually we pulled up outside the brick building and got out. The driver beeped the horn and a man in overalls emerged and embraced Patron. They spoke for several minutes in French before leading me through the metal door at the front.
Inside the modest brick building there were bags of cannabis the size of hay bales. They were stacked up to the ceiling. "I think that's about two tons of weed," said Patron.
A large quantity of the weed belonged to him. It was his product. It wouldn't be sold on the street, though; these drugs would be wrapped up in small packages and delivered by the postman. Patron, as he says himself, is "not a gangster". He's a large-scale deep web drug dealer. He sells opium and premium quality hash on the internet, and claims to be making "around £100,000 a month" in Bitcoin in the process. His drugs are distributed all over the world after he pushes them into a postbox. I'd met a deep web drugs boss who explained the business once before, but with Patron I'd see it firsthand.
The deep web drug markets began with the notorious "Silk Road", headed by "Dread Pirate Roberts" (DPR). The FBI shut down Silk Road in 2013 when they arrested DPR, identified as 32-year-old Ross Ulbricht. The former deep web kingpin was handed a brutal prison term: two life sentences without parole, along with 20 years and 15 years for two other charges. The FBI's aim was to put an end to the brazen rise of online drug distribution, but what they actually did was create a hydra. When Silk Road was around there was only one real competitor: Black Market Reloaded. Now there are over 15 deep web drug markets, many of them with much more robust security than Silk Road. It could be argued that the deep web drug scene has never had so many options.
For Patron, who sells his product on the new sites like Hansa Market and AlphaBay, the deep web is a place where he believes he can "ethically sell drugs". Like most in this community, he doesn't consider himself a criminal. "Look, there are criminals and there are criminals," he said as we walked through the brick building to a back room. "If you drink and drive you're a criminal; if you speed you're a criminal; if you've got cancer and decide to source your own cannabis to alleviate the pain, you're a criminal. I think, rather than rely on the government to decide what's good and bad for you, you should make your own mind up."
Patron paused to light a cigarette – something he'd do every few minutes. If he wasn't chain smoking he was sucking on a vape. "With the deep web we help people obtain what they want in a safe and secure manner. [They're not] forced to go to a heroin dealer in some shady place on the street; we're letting them sit on their sofa and get their drugs delivered."
While Patron doesn't at first glance strike you as the kind of guy who wants to be known as "the boss", he has an edge to him. Seeing him deal with his business partners in the mountains was an education. One minute he was the most charismatic person in the room, the next he was aloof and serious – cold, even. He switched rapidly. The more we talked, though, the more he seemed – deep down – to be a bit of a geek. A tough geek, mind you.
He was genuinely fascinated with OPSEC, computers, technology and hardware. Earlier in the day, for example, as we walked along the docks in Morocco, Patron pointed out all the coastguard speedboats in the water. He knew the names, the model numbers, which engines they used, how fast they could go and what kind of security personnel would be manning them. Patron wasn't a drug dealer who'd fallen into the deep web world, but a deep web guy who'd fallen into the drugs world. This is perhaps what's currently keeping him one step ahead of the authorities.
Patron reached into a sack in the backroom and dumped several kilos of pressed hash and three bags of "shake" – cannabis that's been ground down into a fine dust – onto a table. "There we go," he said. "That's my next shipment. That's coming over with the team soon" – his team being a group he calls "Cartel Norte Africa" (CNA) – or North African Cartel in English. The CNA is a small team of Spaniards and Berbers (indigenous North Africans) headed by Patron. They work in both Morocco and Spain. With the help of CNA, Patron can get his product smuggled from North Africa to Europe, where it's then distributed all over the world from the orders the team receives via the deep web.
"Right now I'm doing quarter ton shipments – 250kg each run. Depends on how much the clients want, but we're doing about two runs every month." Patron explained that while he makes decent money from this, he's by no means a rich man. "I live well, but I have to pay everyone in the team. I have to pay for my own personal security team, the farmers, smugglers – everyone. I want everyone to get their fair cut. But that's why I work with these guys here: to get the premium product for a fair price. These farms have been in operation for generations."
Patron opened a bag of shake. The smell filled the whole room. "Once the plants are grown, they're cut, dried and the shake is prepared and the hash is made from that. We then transport using a number of vehicles."
Once his blocks of hash have been pressed at the building in the valley, Patron then helps load them onto flat bed trucks. They're transported down to a coastal region of Morocco where they're placed onto rigid inflatable boats. "The boats have around five 300 horsepower motors on them," he explained. "They're very fast boats. It's just a fucking blur when you're on them. It's scary. We then head toward Spain, offloading everything at the coast when it arrives."
From here the drugs are taken to safe houses. This was our next destination. The following day we left Morocco, after a freezing cold night's sleep in a half constructed building with no heating – "the only place around", according to Patron.
Every time we arrived at a new location Patron would methodically swap the SIM cards in both of his phones before placing them into special bags that shut off all signal. He'd also stash one of his two passports – the two that I saw him with, at least – in whichever car came to pick us up. In Spain, over the space of a three-hour journey from the coast to the safe house, we changed car twice – the second time at the side of a road with no streetlights or barriers. Patron was paranoid, and rightly so. If caught he could face up to 15 years in prison.
"Okay," said Patron, cautiously, puffing on a cigarette as he checked his mirror. "We're coming up to the safe house now." We sped down a dark track through the middle of nowhere, eventually pulling into a small courtyard with a few houses. Two young men approached and hugged Patron. The three of them spoke Spanish among themselves. After a few minutes, Patron and I headed into the safe house as the two men peeled off into the courtyard somewhere.
The inside of the safe house looked like a cyberpunk hideout. There were several laptops, messy wiring, a flat screen TV and USB card readers all over the place. There was a settee and a table and some leftovers. On the wall there was a long range hunting rifle with a mounted scope. I asked Patron if he liked to hunt.
"Yeah, I like to hunt," he replied. A pause. "I tell you what, though: if you shot someone with that it'd fucking hurt."
Patron vanished into another room before retuning with a laptop and another sack. He emptied the sack onto the table: a kilo of "Amnez" hash and a large puck-shaped brick of opium.
Patron plugged a USB stick into the laptop. It booted up. "I use Tails, you see." He pointed at the USB stick. Tails is an operating system that's used for maintaining privacy online. It blocks all non-anonymous connections and forces all its outgoing connections through Tor, a web browser designed to keep the user anonymous. Basically, anyone selling drugs on the internet without Tails is much more likely to get caught.
Once logged into the deep web markets, Patron checked his orders. There were quite a few. Business was going well. "Here we go," he said. "This woman wants hash. I'll show you how we do it." He clicked around a few times and then lit up another cigarette. Watching Patron at work in the safe house, on his computer doing the orders, was like watching a good mechanic fix a car – he was absolutely in his element and knew by instinct how to work.
Suddenly there was a mechanical grinding sound. It was a printer booting up in the corner. A fake invoice for a gym membership came out. Without saying a word, Patron pulled on a pair of surgical gloves, grabbed a knife from his coat pocket and headed to a desk in the corner of the room. He took the invoice and a block of hash with him. There was a portable fan heater at his feet. He switched it on and stuck the knife in between the metal grill. He placed the block of hash on a chopping board and lit up another cigarette, having left his last one unfinished in an ashtray. "Look," he said, pausing to inhale. "Okay, yeah. I am doing something that the government classes as illegal, but on a moral standpoint I think it's perfectly reasonable."
Patron went off on a tangent while he waited for the knife to heat up. He told me that his dream, ultimately, was to someday open up a health clinic of sorts – a place where experimental drug treatments with CBD (the non psychoactive chemical in cannabis) can be done legally.
Then the knife was hot. Patron stubbed out his half smoked cigarette and got to work, chopping off about a gram of hash from the block. He then wrapped it in cling film, glued it to the back of the invoice, folded it all up and popped it into an envelope. The drugs were hidden. "There you go," he laughed. "You get that in the mail and open it up and it's just a gym invoice."
Patron is perhaps as much a product of the internet as he is the drugs war. Sat in the safe house, surrounded by laptops, cigarettes and drugs, he seemed to be more at home than in the mountains where he was doing the more dangerous work. For him, the money and the lifestyle aren't worth it if he doesn't have the community and the camaraderie of the deep web. As he said himself: "I like what DPR believed in. He created a new culture."
Before I finally said goodbye to Patron, I asked him what it is he loves so much about the deep web drug markets he operates on.
"Generally, on the deep web, everyone is trying to get along," he said. "They solve their disputes through admins on the markets and it's all very civilised and very nice. Then there's the bulk [drug] transport business – the stuff that happens outside of the internet. Think about it: that's been going on since the actual Silk Road [ancient trade route through Asia], and it's ironic, as this all started with violence – with the Opium Wars and what have you – and now, without the deep web and the Silk Road [marketplace], it all ends with violence."
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