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The Hunt For A Russian Spy: How The FSB Used A Mexican Man To Target A Defector In Miami  

Mexican scientist Hector Alejandro Cabrera Fuentes took part in a sophisticated, yearslong Russian effort to target an infamous spy who defected to the United States. (file photo)
Mexican scientist Hector Alejandro Cabrera Fuentes took part in a sophisticated, yearslong Russian effort to target an infamous spy who defected to the United States. (file photo)

On February 13, 2020, a Russian-educated Mexican microbiologist who worked in Singapore arrived at the Miami, Florida, airport, and rented a car.

The following day, the man and one of his two wives drove to a Miami condo complex and entered through the security gate by following closely behind a car in front of them. When security guards alarmed by the unusual actions found the vehicle and confronted the man, his wife snapped a photograph of a license plate of another nearby car. They were ordered to leave.

The car whose license plate was photographed belonged to a “U.S. government confidential human source, who previously provided information regarding [Russian Intelligence Service] activities implicating national security interests of the United States,” according to a 2020 FBI affidavit.

Until now, the identity of the “U.S. government human source” had been a closely held secret. But a book scheduled for release later this month has pinpointed who it was -- a revelation that pointed to a complex, sophisticated, yearslong effort by Russian intelligence agencies to locate the man, and possibly assassinate him.

The man was Aleksandr Poteyev, a former Russian Foreign Intelligence Service officer whose tip-off to the FBI a decade earlier ignited one the biggest spy scandals in modern U.S. history, leading to the arrest of 10 Russian “sleeper” agents living undercover in the United States under elaborate false identities.

The Russians were swiftly deported from the United States. In exchange, four Russians jailed in their home country on charges of spying -- including a former military intelligence officer named Sergei Skripal -- were released and sent to the West in a Cold War-style swap.

Putin's Fury

In the aftermath of the Russians’ expulsion, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made no effort to hide his fury at the person who, to his mind, betrayed his country.

"Those people sacrificed their lives to serve the Motherland, and there happened to be an animal who betrayed them," Putin said during a televised call-in show in December 2010. "How will he live with it all his life? How will he look his children in the eye? Swine!"

"As for the traitors, they will croak all by themselves. Whatever equivalent of 30 pieces of silver they get, it will get stuck in their throats,” he said.

In 2018, Skripal and his daughter nearly died in Salisbury, England, when they were exposed to a powerful Soviet-era nerve agent, and a British woman who also came in contact with the substance died. British authorities identified two Russian military intelligence agents as the culprits.

'Simply A Scumbag': Putin Calls Ex-Spy Skripal A 'Traitor'
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Poteyev, meanwhile, is still believed to be alive.

The Mexican man, who pleaded guilty to U.S. foreign agent charges in 2022 and is scheduled to be released from a U.S. prison next month, is Hector Alejandro Cabrera Fuentes, 38.

His connection to the Poteyev case was first confirmed in the book Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West, which is being released later this month. RFE/RL obtained a copy in advance.

The book’s author, Calder Walton, a researcher at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, told RFE/RL that he learned of Fuentes’ connection to Poteyev from two U.S. intelligence officials.

The findings were corroborated separately by The New York Times.

'We Can Help Each Other'

Fuentes agreed to assist Russian intelligence agents, according to Justice Department filings, sometime around May 2019, when his second wife -- a Russian woman -- and their two daughters traveled to Russia from Germany to resolve some paperwork issues. Fuentes at the time was in Singapore, where he worked as an occupational researcher at the National Heart Center.

Russian officials refused to let the woman and children leave at the conclusion of their trip. According to the FBI affidavit, Fuentes then traveled to Moscow, where he met with an unnamed Russian official whom he knew from earlier “professional meetings and exchanges.”

At a later meeting in Moscow, the Russian man gave Fuentes a “hardcopy printout” of a 2015 e-mail from Fuentes’ Gmail account, noting that Fuentes had been searching for real estate in Miami. According to the affidavit, the man pointed out that Fuentes’ wife and daughters were unable to leave Russia and told him, “We can help each other.”

Fuentes was then instructed by the Russian man to rent an apartment in Miami in the same complex where Poteyev was living, but to do it under someone else’s name, the FBI said.

Fuentes finalized the rental in December 2019. That month, he met again in Moscow with the Russian official, who then instructed Fuentes to locate Poteyev’s car and make note of the license plate and its physical location in the complex’s parking garage. The man, however, told Fuentes not to photograph the car, according to the affidavit.

On February 16, two days after Fuentes and his first wife were confronted by security at the condo complex, they were stopped by U.S. border agents at the Miami airport, where they were scheduled to fly out to Mexico City. Agents searched Fuentes’ wife's phone and found a photograph of the car license plate that she had taken in the complex parking garage, and one she had sent to Fuentes via WhatsApp.

When Fuentes was questioned by FBI agents the following day, the affidavit said, he revealed the situation involving his other wife and their daughters, who had been prevented from leaving Russia. And he turned over his messages with the man he believed worked for the Federal Security Service, Russia’s main domestic intelligence agency, known as the FSB.

Fuentes was arrested on February 18, 2020, on charges of being an unregistered foreign agent. He pleaded guilty roughly two years later and was subsequently sentenced to four years in prison.

“I have zero interest in getting involved in anything like that from now on,” he told the court at his sentencing on June 22, 2022.

U.S. authorities said they would deport Fuentes after he finishes his sentence. He is scheduled to be released next month, on July 16, from a minimum-security federal prison in South Carolina.

Fuentes’ Miami-based lawyer, Ronald Gainor, confirmed Fuentes’ upcoming release and expected deportation, but had no further comment.

'We Know Who He Is And Where He Is'

For years, Poteyev worked for Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, known as the SVR, which along with the FSB is the one of the main successor agencies to the KGB.

After tipping off U.S. officials to the Russian “illegals” spy ring, he escaped Russia and resettled in the United States, reportedly under a witness protection program that's said to be overseen by the CIA. His name emerged publicly in leaks to Russian media in late 2010.

In a November 2010 report on a high-ranking SVR defector, the Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted an unnamed Kremlin official invoking the name of the Ramon Mercader, the Soviet agent who assassinated Leon Trotsky with an ice pick in Mexico City in 1940.

“We know who he is and where he is. He betrayed either for money, or he was simply caught on something. But you can be sure that Mercader has already been sent for him,” the official was quoted as saying.

Kommersant identified the defector as a different SVR officer, but days later named Poteyev publicly for the first time.

In July 2011, about a year after he fled Russia and about seven months after Putin publicly suggested that agents who betray Russia be killed, Poteyev was sentenced in absentia to 25 years in prison by a Moscow court.

The effort to target Poteyev using Fuentes was not the first.

In late 2013 or early 2014, a Russian hit man reportedly traveled to Florida looking for a Russian intelligence agent who had defected, according to a 2018 report by the Times. The man was reportedly tracked by U.S. law enforcement. The man was later identified by the BBC as Poteyev.

Two years after that alleged attempt, in July 2016, Russia’s Interfax news agency, citing unnamed intelligence officials, published a cryptic item that suggested Poteyev had died. The news story circulated widely, in and out of Russia.

In fact, the story in fact may have been planted as a way to “flush out” Poteyev, to prompt him to contact his relatives back in Russia and help Russian agents to locate him.

Earlier that year, however, Poteyev used his real name to obtain a fishing license in Florida, BuzzFeed News reported. He also registered to vote using his real name, something that perplexed security experts.

In April 2021, the United States announced it was expelling 10 Russian diplomats, accusing them of involvement in hacking U.S. government agencies and interference in the 2020 presidential election. Some of them were identified as intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover.

One was the Washington station chief for the SVR, who was expelled, according to the Times, in response to the plot targeting Poteyev.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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