Overdose deaths at their lowest this century

Karel Reisenbuk
, Eesti uudiste päevatoimetaja
Estonian fentanyl kings, brothers Dimitri and Paul Kärberg
Estonian fentanyl kings, brothers Dimitri and Paul Kärberg Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

While Estonia topped European drug-related deaths statistics just a few years ago, only 20 drug overdose deaths were registered last year which is the lowest number in the last two decades as the new millennium arrived together with deadly fentanyl.

We can say that the Estonian illegal drugs market is finally more or less under control after being the problem child of crime in Estonia for years and Estonian fentanyl kings are serving time behind bars.

The police paralyzed the bulk of the market back in 2017 by seizing record amounts of fentanyl most of which was handled by just two criminal groups. Brothers Dimitri and Paul Kärberg and Juri Vorobei who ran a local fentanyl laboratory and is known as the killer of underworld leader Nikolai Tarankov.

Public prosecutor Vahur Verte who is responsible for prosecuting the severest drug crimes in recent history said that while the market has remained largely vacant since then, continued demand means there have already been attempts to fill the void. He added that quantities seized from the Kärbergs and Vorobei have not reappeared.

Fentanyl barons in prison

Verte named as last year’s more influential fentanyl traders Roman Kalashnikov, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison (the ruling has not entered into force) for handling of carfentanyl that is a hundred times more potent than fentanyl, and the Sergei Prošin group the trial of which has not started yet.

Still, what allowed fentanyl and its peddlers to sow death for the last 20 years? Verte said that one of the reasons was the longevity of the operation.

“They (the Kärbergs and Vorobei – K. R.) were very good at staying in the shadows. It took us a long time to identify who was really pulling the strings. Their names popped up in several cases and in statements of concerned witnesses, but we did not know their true status for a long time,” the public prosecutor said.

It took years to determine the real barons of the fentanyl world, while the criminals had a decade in which to take over the market.

“Kalashnikov and Prošin were only taking their first steps. We can only speculate as to the scope of their operations were they given a decade to go about their business. There are smaller fish, while we have the resources to stay on top and eventually go after them,” Verte added.

Estonia lacks new drug lords in the traditional sense today as most dealers go back to what they know after being released from prison and are well-known to the criminal police.

“Kalashnikov has several criminal punishments to his name, including for handling cocaine in Russia and illegal explosives in Estonia and more recently for handling fentanyl and illegal handling of an assault rifle,” Verte said. “Those who have been convicted once are much better aware of how drug enforcement officers work, our surveillance capacity and how we collect evidence, meaning they are much better at staying hidden.”

The Office of the Prosecutor General’s recent yearbook concludes that the coronavirus crisis only caused short-term supply difficulties for the Estonian illegal drugs market, with major players being mostly unaffected. Drug dealers with solid international connections could even benefit from the crisis and effect a 10 percent price hike.

Public prosecutor Verte said that dealers and middlemen disappeared from the streets during the spring emergency situation last year, trying to keep a low profile. This did little to disrupt the import of illegal drugs.

Verte pointed out that border closures mostly affected smaller smugglers who use “mules” who take the bus or passenger cars to bring substances into the country.

“The coronavirus did little to hinder higher-profile drug smugglers as they have their own transit capacities both on land and at sea,” he explained.

Other drug business moving online

As the times would have it, a lot of the Estonian illegal substances market has moved online, with the traditional practice of hiding stashes in the woods becoming less common. Verte said that the authorities have not been resting on laurels since they managed to disrupt the fentanyl trade as there is still plenty of work to do.

“While groups peddling fentanyl are no longer taking up the bulk of our resources, we are seriously clamping down on large-scale amphetamine and cocaine trade and will be for years to come,” he said.

One marketplace for fentanyl and other hazardous substances is the so-called dark web that is increasingly becoming a nuisance for the authorities as it is already responsible for a large chunk of the drug trade. The police have uncovered and charged several groups capable of smuggling hundreds of kilograms of banned substances in a short time.

“Their shopping list is very long. From crystals (MDMA – K. R.) and LSD to hashish or what have you. They can move around great quantities, which is why we are contributing a lot of resources there. We are no longer seeing criminals move dozens of kilos of amphetamine from one car to another in the woods. It is being sold in bulk on the dark web, with delivery services used for transport,” Verte said, adding that the dark web is no longer just for hackers.

“The customer base is as varied as they come. While seasoned 40-50-year-old drug addicts who do not use smaretphones have not become dark web customers yet, there is no reason to believe only young people use the medium. The know-how is becoming increasingly common and is by no means rocket science these days. Looking if only at the rise of popularity of bitcoin (the main currency on the dark web – K. R.), it is clear we are not dealing with a niche world anymore. It is the reality today and we need to keep that in mind in our work. Buying drugs off the dark web is not much more complicated than opening a bitcoin wallet,” Verte said.