My Top Secret Meeting with One of Silk Road’s Biggest Drug Lords
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 drugs 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 unravelled into the mainstream and stories of Dread Pirate Roberts’ (DPR) alleged murder-for-hire antics made headlines, one prominent Silk Road drugs 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 drugs 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 stuffed 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 drugs 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.”
A Guy Who Looks Like Psy Is Scamming Rich European Kids for Free Drinks
Last year, a French-Korean guy named Denis Carre went to Barcelona Fashion Week and was mistaken for Psy almost everywhere he went. Yes, Denis was wearing the sunglasses from the “Gangnam Style” video, but that clip has been viewed more than 2 billion times—you’d have thought people would be able to differentiate the real Psy from a slightly tubby French-Korean man in a suit and black sunglasses. Could the cult of celebrity really make people this blind? And, perhaps, even a little bit racist? Or was it more that they just wanted to believe that they were looking at the most viewed face on YouTube?
Denis is a friend of mine, and I was accompanying him that year, taking photos of the whole thing. So I witnessed—among other surreal moments—club owners offering him bundles of cash to perform, and car dealership managers trying to hand him the keys to sports cars, just “because it would be cool to see him drive.”
A year later, we returned to one of this year’s Barcelona Fashion Week parties to find out if everyone would still be excited to see Denis in a suit.
According to the op-eds, our generation’s cultural attention span looks something like an endless loop of “smack-cam” Vines. So we figured people might have forgotten who Psy was, or why they ever gave a shit about him in the first place. To jog their memories, we had a bunch of stickers, T-shirts, and temporary tattoos made up that read: “DO ME GANGNAM STYLE.”
It turns out that this was probably a waste of money; people generally seem to remember global epidemics that dominate popular culture for an entire year.
European Cokeheads Are Ruining West Africa
At the end of June, the United Nations held its annua International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. Yury Fedotov, head of the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime, marked the occasion with a speech. It wasn’t packed with surprises; turns out Afghanistan is still the world’s largest opium producer, the legal-highs market is still booming, and the planet’s governments still aren’t winning the war on drugs.
However, Fedotov did make an interesting point about the emerging cocaine market, mainly in mainly western Africa. “In Africa, [cocaine] consumption appears to be growing,” he announced, before asserting—worryingly—that this noted increase in “drug trade and organized crime is fueling economic and political instability in Africa.” As a planet,” Fedotov said, “we must not allow illicit drugs to slow down development on the continent and the international community must lend assistance to those countries that are particularly blighted by coke and its sociopolitical side-effects: corruption, gang warfare, addiction, crime, illness, poverty, etc.”
What Yury failed to acknowledge, though, is that the UN’s policies are partially—if inadvertently—responsible for the rise in Africa’s drug problems. The heavy policing on traditional cocaine routes from South America has caused the smugglers to pivot and instead use countries like Ghana and Nigeria to get their product through to European customers.
I spoke to Adeolu Ogunrombi from the West African Commission On Drugs, an organization paying serious attention to this issue, and asked him what the situation is like on the ground. Given that the next image in this article is of a very serious-looking man holding a massive gun, I think we can assume that the situation on the ground isn’t a great one.
Malian soldiers on a training exercise with US troops. Photo via
VICE: So, Adeleolu. Where does all this cocaine come from?
Adeleolu Ogunrombi: The cocaine comes from Latin America, over the Atlantic and through West Africa toward its intended customers in Europe.
And is this really a new smuggling route?
The West African route has been exploited for a long time, but what we’ve witnessed in the last decade is an increase in the volume of drugs passing through the region as transnational drug cartels collaborate with local criminal and smuggling networks, corrupt officials, and terrorists to transport their goods to Europe and North America. The traditional routes are being policed more heavily, so the traffickers find alternatives.
How a Remote Laotian Village Became Asia’s Cancun
Vang Vieng is a small town of 25,000 nestled in the jungles of northwestern Laos, on the banks of the Nam Song River. It’s home to caves, lagoons, and lush green hills—a landscape that up until recently had me believing that Laos, my mother’s native land, was mostly free from crass Western concepts like “partying.”
Since the early 2000s, however, the bucolic hamlet has become a destination for drunk Europeans backpacking through Southeast Asia. And today Vang Vieng is near the top of the list of tourist destinations in Laos. It has provided a much-needed boost to the nation’s tourism industry, but in the process altered itself to cater to out-of-towners.
The town’s main street, for instance, is full of bars screening reruns of Friends and Family Guy. Bars offer whiskey-taurine cocktails served in beach buckets. It’s also easy to score opium, magic mushrooms, methamphetamines, and other substances that could get you thrown into a Laotian prison. There are also a handful of underground clubs run by Vietnamese gangs. Curiously, when my sister Florence went to visit Vang Vieng for the first time in 2005, after she returned she told me there were no police in sight. “At any time,” she said, “tourists can buy hard drugs freely, although it’s recommended to avoid heroin or cocaine.” The restaurants sell cannabis and opium at 80,000 kip per gram (about $10), as well as tourist-oriented foods like pasta or pancakes “even if Laotians don’t know how to cook them.”
Meet the Swedes Who Love Classic Cars and Elvis
The Power Big Meet is the biggest American car show in the world—and it takes place in Västerås, a small town in central Sweden. This year, 17,000 car owners from all over the world gathered at the three-day event in early July to do what car enthusiasts love to do—stand around, look at each others’ cars, rev their engines, and just generally shoot the shit.
The event comes out of Sweden’s “raggar” subculture, which emerged in 1950s and was inspired by American greasers. Raggare are mostly from small towns and are known for their love of rockabilly music, leather vests, pomade, and, of course, cars—the raggare’s mode of transport, sleeping place, chick magnet, and party venue.
Thanks to the raggar culture, Sweden is a hub for restored 1950s American cars. By some accounts there are now more of them in Sweden than in the entire US. At Power Big Meet you’ll find Street Rods, Customs, 50s cruisers, 60s muscle cars, Corvettes, Mustangs, Camaros—you name it. I went there to photograph the raggare and see what they had to say for themselves.
Nathalie Rothschild is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @n_rothschild and on hernathalierothschild.com.
The American flag and 50s pop culture symbols are everywhere at the Power Big Meet. Rockabilly music blares out from car speakers. Hamburgers and hotdogs are dished out at makeshift stands. It’s about the only place in the world where fuzzy dice are still cool.
I’m not sure that parrots are part of the raggar culture, but this guy had one anyway.
Bertil Johansson, 67, makes 50s-inspired birdhouses. The car-shaped ones were snapped up on the first day of Power Big Meet, but on the third and final day, Bertil still had these Elvis-themed ones left. They’re 800 Swedish kronor (or $115), if you’re curious. “I’ve been interested in cars since I was born,” said Bertil. “But today all the cars look the same. They’re all plastic and awful. And you have to take your car to the shop for every little thing. You can’t even change the sparkplug on your own these days.”
Sebastian Stridh, 24, comes from Årjäng in Värmland County, Sweden. Årjäng has a population of nearly 10,000 people. His dad is a raggare too, but he was too old to make the trip. For Sebastian and his friends the car is a symbol of freedom. “The car is central. It’s very important when you’re young and living in such a small place as Årjäng. It gives you a feeling that you can get out. Me and my friends ride around and drink in our cars.”