Latin America stays a playground for Russian intelligence

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Over the previous 18 months, suspected Russian spies have been unearthed in Europe, from the Netherlands to Norway and Sweden to Slovenia. Many have one thing in widespread: a hyperlink to the Americas. The arrests present that Latin America stays, because it was within the Cold War, a springboard for Russian spies who go on to snoop across the United States and Europe.

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Policemen stand guard at one of many stations of Quito’s Metro Line 1, throughout its first day of operation in Quito on December 1, 2023. . (Photo by Rodrigo Buendia / AFP)(AFP)

Consider Victor Muller Ferreira, a Brazilian man who arrived in The Hague in April 2022 to take up an internship on the International Criminal Court, solely to be promptly deported. He was alleged to be Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, an “illegal”—an intelligence officer working beneath a false identification, slightly than beneath diplomatic cowl—of the GRU, Russia’s navy intelligence service.

Other suspects tumbled out of the closet. Norway arrested José Assis Giammaria, a Brazilian educational who had graduated from a Canadian college that October. He was Mikhail Mikushin, additionally a GRU officer. In December Slovenia rounded up Maria Mayer and Ludwig Gisch, an Argentine couple in Slovenia who had been actually members of the SVR, Russia’s international spy company. In January Gerhard Daniel Campos Wittich, an Austrian-Brazilian dwelling in Rio de Janeiro, vanished. He was a Mr Shmyrev and married secretly to Irina Shmyrev, one other GRU officer, who herself posed as Maria Tsalla, a Mexican lady in Athens.

Russian spies have lengthy considered the Americas as a great place to launder, ie, construct up a false identification for, such deep-cover officers. Konon Molody loved a profitable espionage profession in Britain as Gordon Lonsdale, ostensibly a Canadian businessman, from 1953 to 1961. When the United States recognized a dozen illegals in 2010, one claimed to be a Uruguayan-born Peruvian and 4 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 a lot of his profession as a counter-intelligence analyst on the FBI. The nation’s passports weren’t solely easy to accumulate but in addition allowed simple journey to the United States and Europe. Canada additionally lacked centralised record-keeping, explains Stephanie Carvin of Carleton University in Ottawa, making it simple to imagine the identification of useless Canadian infants.

Canada was later “shamed” into strengthening its passport safety, making it more durable to get pretend identities and pushing Russia to look to the south, says Mr Riehle. That might be why “we’re seeing so many Latin American [illegals] now”. Latin America’s larger ranges of corruption are additionally a part of the attraction. Mr Cherkasov boasted of bribing a Brazilian, considered a neighborhood official, with a $400 necklace to accumulate citizenship, a start certificates and a driving licence—all with out offering any identification paperwork.

Latin America can also be enticing to snoops primarily based at a Russian embassy—in a rezidentura in espionage argot. That is as a result of the area is stuffed with Americans—officers and others—whose actions the Russians need to learn 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 pinnacle of America’s Northern Command, noticed final 12 months that Mexico has extra GRU members than another international nation.

It can also be attainable for Russian intelligence officers to function in Latin America with much less scrutiny than in Europe or the United States. Ten to twenty years in the past, says Mr Norman, that was largely as a result of native intelligence companies, with some exceptions, had been poorly resourced and unsophisticated. Technology has made them extra succesful. Even smaller and poorer companies, says Mr Norman, can use low-cost or publicly accessible instruments to conduct “pretty sophisticated counter-intelligence operations”.

But they might not use them to root out Russian spies. Many Latin American companies have an perspective of benign neglect in direction of Russian skulduggery. Brazil’s police ultimately investigated Mr Cherkasov’s actions and co-operated with the United States, handing over his digital gear. But the federal government refused an American request to extradite the Russian and slashed his sentence from 15 to 5 years. Argentine and Brazilian intelligence are politicised, with senior intelligence officers usually changed when new governments take workplace.

For each sensible and ideological causes neither nation needs to select a quarrel with Russia. Brazil will get round a fifth of its fertiliser from Russia, for instance. Argentina will get a tenth. Many Latin American governments don’t 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 downside may quickly worsen. Last 12 months greater than 600 suspected Russian intelligence officers had been expelled from embassies in Europe. Many are already turning up throughout Latin America.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, printed beneath licence. The authentic content material could be discovered on www.economist.com



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