On the Trail of the Fentanyl King
Just a few days later, the DEA moved to apprehend Allawi’s team in simultaneous takedowns across Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston; Uno, Robinson, Al Salihi, and Goss were all arrested. So was Kalra, Allawi’s bitcoin guy. Valle was with a SWAT team at Allawi’s gargantuan rental home in the suburbs of Houston. They tried ramming the door down, but Allawi had splurged on a $10,000 reinforced model, Valle says. The team had to break in through a window.
Inside, they found Allawi clad in black pants and a white polo. He told agents they had nothing on him, even as investigators seized a bitcoin wallet, two money counters, 12 burner phones, four small bags of blue chemical binder, and a .45 Colt.
After the DEA agents made clear that they had more than enough evidence, Allawi quieted down. Sitting on the driveway, handcuffed, cross-legged, and slightly disheveled, he looked more like the young Iraqi who’d smoked hookah alongside US contractors than the leader of a drug ring. He rolled onto his left side, curled into a ball on the pavement, and closed his eyes.
In June 2017, a grand jury indicted Allawi for conspiring to distribute fentanyl, meth, and cocaine; possession of a firearm during a drug trafficking crime; and conspiracy to launder monetary instruments, among other charges.
The mountain of evidence against Allawi was overwhelming—so overwhelming, in fact, that Anthony Cantrell, his court-appointed lawyer, said a trial would take months and put a strain on his practice. Instead, Allawi pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 400 grams or more of fentanyl resulting in death or serious bodily injury, and to using a gun during a drug crime. Investigators estimated that Allawi had made at least $14 million off his criminal activities, and had sold at least 850,000 counterfeit pills in 38 states. Sorianello says that Allawi saw the growing market for pills and capitalized on it with his operation. “He was one of the first we saw doing this at large scale,” he says. “He was a pioneer.”
At his sentencing, Allawi adopted a contrite tone. “I messed up. It was a great mistake.” He concluded by asking for mercy, for the US to give him a second chance. But the court showed no such clemency: As part of his plea deal, Allawi was sentenced to 30 years in a federal prison in northern Louisiana; he has since been transferred to a medium-security facility in New York. After that, he will be deported back to Iraq. Uno, Robinson, Al Salihi, and Kalra, meanwhile, all pleaded guilty and received prison sentences ranging from 18 months to 10 years. The judge was more lenient with Goss, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to posses with intent to distribute cocaine, and was sentenced to five years’ probation.
Allawi maintained that if the US had been in the throes of a devastating opioid epidemic while he was running his drug ring, he’d never heard about it, “never heard about overdoses or the damage it can cause.” But it was operations like his—dealers selling counterfeit pills laced with illicitly produced fentanyl—that authorities say contributed to so much death and destruction.
Roughly a month after Allawi’s arrest, authorities took down AlphaBay. But it didn’t do much to relieve the opioid epidemic in the US. More than 106,000 people died of a drug overdose in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—a record high. Dark-web markets, meanwhile, logged $3.1 billion in revenue that year, according to Chainalysis, a research firm that tracks cryptocurrency activity. Revenue dropped last year, thanks in large part to the takedown of another major dark-web bazaar called Hydra, but illegal marketplaces still raked in $1.5 billion.