top of page

Latin America remains a playground for Russian intelligence - The Economist - 14.09.23

The region is a good spot to nurture spies.

Over the past 18 months suspected Russian spies have been unearthed in Europe, from the Netherlands to Norway and Sweden to Slovenia. Many have something in common: a link to the Americas. The arrests show that Latin America remains, as it was in the cold war, a springboard for Russian spies who go on to snoop around the United States and Europe.

Consider Victor Muller Ferreira, a Brazilian man who arrived in The Hague in April 2022 to take up an internship at the International Criminal Court, only to be promptly deported. He was alleged to be Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, an “illegal”—an intelligence officer working under a false identity, rather than under diplomatic cover—of the gru, Russia’s military intelligence service.

Other suspects tumbled out of the closet. Norway arrested José Assis Giammaria, a Brazilian academic who had graduated from a Canadian university that October. He was Mikhail Mikushin, also a gru officer. In December Slovenia rounded up Maria Mayer and Ludwig Gisch, an Argentine couple in Slovenia who were really members of the svr, Russia’s foreign spy agency. In January Gerhard Daniel Campos Wittich, an Austrian-Brazilian living in Rio de Janeiro, vanished. He was a Mr Shmyrev and married secretly to Irina Shmyrev, another gru officer, who herself posed as Maria Tsalla, a Mexican woman in Athens.

Russian spies have long viewed the Americas as a good place to launder, ie, build up a false identity for, such deep-cover officers. Konon Molody enjoyed a successful espionage career in Britain as Gordon Lonsdale, ostensibly a Canadian businessman, from 1953 to 1961. When the United States identified a dozen illegals in 2010, one claimed to be a Uruguayan-born Peruvian and four others Canadians.

“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 counter-intelligence analyst at the fbi. The country’s passports were not only simple to acquire but also allowed easy travel to the United States and Europe. Canada also lacked centralised record-keeping, explains Stephanie Carvin of Carleton University in Ottawa, making it easy to assume the identity of dead Canadian babies.

Canada was later “shamed” into strengthening its passport security, making it harder to get fake identities and pushing Russia to look to the south, says Mr Riehle. That is probably why “we’re seeing so many Latin American [illegals] now”. Latin America’s higher levels of corruption are also part of the appeal. Mr Cherkasov boasted of bribing a Brazilian, thought to be a local official, with a $400 necklace to acquire citizenship, a birth certificate and a driving licence—all without providing any identification documents.

Latin America is also attractive to snoops based at a Russian embassy—in a rezidentura in espionage argot. That is because the region is full of Americans—officials and others—whose activities the Russians want to know about. “There’s a rich target pool,” says Duyane Norman, who was the cia’s chief of operations for Latin America. General Glen VanHerck, the head of America’s Northern Command, observed last year that Mexico has more gru members than any other foreign country.

It is also possible for Russian intelligence officers to operate in Latin America with less scrutiny than in Europe or the United States. Ten to 20 years ago, says Mr Norman, that was largely because local intelligence services, with some exceptions, were poorly resourced and unsophisticated. Technology has made them more capable. Even smaller and poorer services, says Mr Norman, can use cheap or publicly available tools to conduct “pretty sophisticated counter-intelligence operations”.

But they may not use them to root out Russian spies. Many Latin American services have an attitude of benign neglect towards Russian skulduggery. Brazil’s police eventually investigated Mr Cherkasov’s activities and co-operated with the United States, handing over his electronic gear. But the government refused an American request to extradite the Russian and slashed his sentence from 15 to five years. Argentine and Brazilian intelligence are politicised, with senior intelligence officers often replaced when new governments take office.

For both practical and ideological reasons neither country wants to pick a quarrel with Russia. Brazil gets around a fifth of its fertiliser from Russia, for example. Argentina gets a tenth. Many Latin American governments do not share the United States’ view of Russia as a geopolitical villain. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president, has accused Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, of being “as responsible as Putin for the war” in Ukraine.

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

For this article in pdf, please click here:

Latin America remains a playground for Russian intelligence - The Economist - 14.09.23
Download PDF • 176KB

This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline "Spooks in the south"

image: Ben Jones

9 views0 comments


bottom of page