Latin America, crossroads of Russian intelligence

(To Renato Caputo)

In the last 18 months, suspected Russian spies have been discovered across Europe, from the Netherlands to Norway, from Sweden to Slovenia. Many of them have something in common. Analyzing the cover identities of the arrests revealed that Latin America remains, as during the Cold War, a launching pad for Russian spies who are then sent to carry out their activities in the United States and Europe.

We consider Victor Muller Ferreira, a “Brazilian” arrived in The Hague in April 2022 to undertake an internship at the International Criminal Court, only to be discovered by the Dutch counter-espionage with the collaboration of the US one. His true identity turned out to be another: Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, an intelligence agent who worked for the GRU - the Russian military intelligence service - under a false identity, rather than under diplomatic cover.

“Illegal” agents are long-term, undercover operators. Not spying under the protection of jobs in embassies and diplomatic passports, they assume other identities and try to blend in with the population of the countries where they move. If caught, they could face long-term prison sentences.

But Cherkasov's case is not an isolated case. Josè Assis Giammaria was arrested by Norwegian security officials on charges of being a spy in the service of Moscow. He said he was a researcher Brazilian at the University of Tromso, where he worked on Arctic issues. Colleagues are still unable to recover from the shock. “We didn't expect this and we're still trying to process what happened.”, says an associate professor at the university. The rector described him as a committed and sociable researcher. His true identity is that of Mikhail Valerievich Mikushin, also a GRU officer.

In December, in Slovenia, Maria Mayer and Ludwig Gish were arrested, having settled in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, in 2017 with two young children. After six years, they were arrested because it was discovered that they were spying for Russia. They passed themselves off as a couple."Argentina”, but in reality they were members of the SVR, Russia's foreign spy agency.

Gerhard Daniel Campos Wittich is also a GRU agent who passed himself off among his circle of acquaintances as an expert in "3D printing". His true identity was exposed when his wife Irina Alexandrova Smireva (this is Maria Tsalla's real name) was also unmasked. The wife's false identity was taken from a child who died in 1991. This technique is frequently used by Russian intelligence services.

But what could be hidden behind an apparently harmless activity like 3D printing? There are two hypotheses. The most harmless explanation is that it's a convenient cover story. You buy a few printers, talk excitedly about 3D printing, and no one will ever ask you any questions. Another, more disturbing hypothesis is that 3D printing could be used for spying. He may have used this ploy to get close to prominent elements of the Brazilian army.

To understand how plausible this could be, just think of another case of espionage from the past. In 1945, the Russians presented a wooden copy of the Great Seal of the United States to the American ambassador in Moscow. Apparently sculpted by schoolchildren, the ambassador placed it in his office. The passive monopole antenna inside was not found for six years and was only discovered by accident.

Moscow, even in Soviet times, has long considered the Americas as a good place to build the false identity of these undercover agents. 

Konon Trofimovich Molody, to name just one example, had a successful espionage career in Britain as Gordon Arnold Lonsdale, apparently a Canadian businessman, from 1953 to 1961.

“For many years, Canada was the place to go to get a passport”, says Kevin Riehle of Brunel University in London, who spent much of his career as a counterintelligence analyst at the FBI. The country's passports were not only simple to acquire, but also allowed for easy travel within the United States and Europe. “Centralized record keeping was also lacking in Canada - explains Stephanie Carvin of Carleton University in Ottawa - which made it easy to assume the identity of the dead Canadian children.".

Canada later strengthened its passport security, making it harder to obtain fake identities and prompting Russia to look south, Riehle says. This is probably why "we're seeing so many (illegal) Latinos now". Latin America's higher levels of corruption are also part of the appeal. Cherkasov boasted that he had bribed a Brazilian, believed to be a local official, with a $400 necklace to acquire citizenship, a birth certificate and a driver's license, all without providing any identification.

Latin America is also attractive to spies based at a Russian embassy. This is because the region is full of Americans whose activities the Russians want to know about. "There is a rich target pool", says Duine Norman, who was the CIA's chief of operations for Latin America. General Glen David VanHerck, head of the American Northern Command, noted last year that the Mexico has more GRU members than any other foreign country.

It is also possible that Russian intelligence agents operate in Latin America, because controls there are less stringent than in Europe or the United States. Ten or twenty years ago, Norman says, this was largely because local intelligence services, with some exceptions, were understaffed and unsophisticated. Now, technology has made them more capable. Even the smallest and poorest services, Norman says, can use inexpensive or publicly available tools to conduct "pretty sophisticated counterintelligence operations." However, they may not use them to root out Russian spies. The explanation is that many Latin American services have an attitude of benign neglect towards the Russians.

Brazilian police, for example, eventually investigated Cherkasov's activities and cooperated with the United States, handing over his electronic equipment. But the government rejected the American request to extradite the Russian and reduced his sentence from 15 to five years.

Argentina's and Brazil's intelligence services are politicized, with senior intelligence officials often replaced when new governments take office.

For both practical and ideological reasons neither country wants to start a dispute with Russia. Brazil, for example, receives about a fifth of its fertilizers from Russia. Argentina gets a tenth.

The problem could soon get worse. Last year, more than 600 suspected Russian intelligence agents were expelled from embassies in Europe. Many are already showing up across Latin America.

Image: author