• Wed. Feb 8th, 2023

The Hunt for the Dark Web’s Biggest Kingpin, Part 1: The Shadow


Oct 25, 2022


on the morning of July 5, 2017, a gray Toyota Camry slowly turned into the cul-de-sac of a quiet neighborhood in Bangkok—a moderately upscale subdivision on the western edge of the city, where the pulsating capital’s downtown high-rises began to flatten out into highways and canals snaking through tropical forest and farmlands.

Behind the wheel sat a woman who went by the nickname Nueng. A slight, 46-year-old agent of the Royal Thai Police with a short, boyish haircut, she wore a white polo shirt and black pants rather than her usual military-style uniform. Both she and the female officer beside her in the passenger seat were working undercover.

Nueng’s heart pounded. For more than two years, law enforcement agents from around the world had been hunting the dark-web mastermind known as Alpha02, a shadowy figure who oversaw millions of dollars a day in narcotics sales and had built the largest digital drug and crime bazaar in history, known as AlphaBay. Now, a coordinated takedown and sting involving no fewer than six countries’ agencies had tracked Alpha02 to Thailand. The operation had finally led to this quiet block in Bangkok, to the home of a 26-year-old Canadian named Alexandre Cazes. Nueng knew that the success of the plot to arrest Cazes and knock out this linchpin of the global underworld economy hinged on what she did in the next few moments.

Trying to give the impression of an inexperienced driver, Nueng slowly rolled the car toward a model home and real estate office at the end of the cul-de-sac. She signaled to a security guard outside the house that she had taken a wrong turn and needed to pull a 180. She heard him shout at her to back directly out instead, that the street was too narrow for a three-point turn.

Nueng quickly muttered a nearly silent prayer—an adapted, high-speed plea to the holy trinity of the Buddha, his teachings, and all the monks and nuns in his service. “Dear Buddha, please bless me with success,” she whispered in Thai. “Dear Dhamma, please bless me with success. Dear Sangha, please bless me with success.”

Then she put the car in reverse, turned the wheel to the left, and ever so gently—almost in slow motion—slammed the Toyota’s fender into Alexandre Cazes’ front gate.

Around 18 months earlier, Robert Miller sat in the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s wiretap room in Fresno, California, spending another painfully boring day listening in on the life of one of the DEA’s endless supply of narcotics targets in California’s Central Valley.

All Miller ever wanted was to be on a SWAT team. At the academy, instructors had praised him for his instinctive judgment and thoroughness—how, in training raids on the academy’s mock-ups of drug dens, he always meticulously cleared his corners and covered his blind spots. And when the young DEA agent was assigned to the agency’s field office in Fresno right after graduation, he had high hopes it would put him where he wanted to be: making arrests, carrying out search warrants, “hitting doors,” as he put it. (Miller’s name and some personal details have been changed, per his request.)

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