I have tended to think that worrying about Russian spies was a remnant of the old Cold War. It has certainly faded from the news over the past few years as increasing worries about China have taken its place in the media’s continuous craving for sensationalism. “Russian spies” seems like yesterday’s news. However, neglect of the “Russian spies” threat may have been an error.

     Over the past eighteen months Russian spies have been unearthed all over Europe, from the Netherlands to Norway, Sweden and Slovenia. Many seem have a common link and that, perhaps surprisingly, is South America. The arrests of these spies show that Latin America remains, as it was in the cold war, a springboard for Russian operatives who go on to snoop around Europe and the Americas.

     Victor Muller Ferreira, a Brazilian man who arrived in The Hague in April 2022 to take up an internship at the International Criminal Court, was promptly deported when it turned out he was actually Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, an undercover GRU intelligence officer; GRU is the Russian military intelligence service (If that’s not an oxymoron!). Norway recently arrested Jose Assis Giammaria, a Brazilian academic who graduated from a Canadian university. He turned out to be Mikhail Mikushin, also a GRU officer.

     Russian spies, and Russian spying agencies, have long considered Latin America to be a fertile location from which to cultivate spies and send them around the world. Konon Molody enjoyed a successful espionage career in Britain from 1953 to 1961 as Gordon Lonsdale, a Canadian businessman. The list goes on.

     It also turns out that Russian spies have found special niche in Latin America itself. The sub-continent is rich in Americans, officials and others, in whom they have found a special interest. “There’s a rich target pool” says Duyane Norman, who was the CIA’s chief of operations for Latin America. The head of the U.S. Northern Command recently claimed that Mexico has more GRU officers living there than in any other foreign country in the world. Presumably there are more in Russia…..but maybe not. 

     Apparently Canada used to be the favorite place for Russia to cultivate its spies because Canada’s rules governing the acquisition of passports were lax. Now that Canada has been forced to tighten things up, South America has emerged as the “go-to” place for spies to acquire false identities. Latin America’s higher levels of corruption are also part of the appeal. Mr. Cherkasov boasted of bribing a Brazilian official with a $400 necklace to get his citizenship, a birth certificate and a driving license, all without providing any identification documents.  

     Even though the sophistication of Latin American intelligence services has increased substantially over the old Cold War period, there seems to be a reluctance to pursue the Russian spies. It may well have to do with trade relations, as well as corruption. Brazil gets about a fifth of its fertilizer from Russia, for example, and Argentina gets about a tenth. It’s no coincidence that these two countries are the primary sources of the recent “Russian spies” epidemic in Europe.

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

     It is easy to dismiss the idea of Russian spies living next door as paranoia, or as a remnant of the McCarthy era in the U.S. when the country was convinced that there was a communist around every corner. However, as the old saying goes, “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”

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