A prestigious Mexican scientist hired by the National University of Singapore faces an espionage trial in the United States
The operation had everything to go well. A scientist with a rising career loved in his village and respected for his research in molecular cardiology. A recognized academic with the face of good people, who moved through the best universities thanks to their degrees, and a relatively easy mission to execute. His appearance helped him. Héctor Alejandro Cabrera Fuentes, robust and short, was born 35 years ago in El Espinal, a small community in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in Mexico. He had a passport with several visas and was traveling without problems through the United States, France or Germany. He was, in short, a perfect candidate for Russia to notice him.
The last assignment they made was to provide photos and data about an American FBI agent who was investigating the activities of Russian espionage in Florida. But something went wrong and Agent Karla from Oaxaca was arrested on February 17 in Miami. Caught between two superpowers, as if it were a thriller of the Cold War Cabrera admitted to the FBI that Russia had pressured him to become an informant in exchange for removing the two daughters he has with a Russian woman from the country. When the case reached the news, all sorts of rocambolesque details were revealed: a confession that buried the reputation of one of the most promising scientists in Mexico, two wives separated by more than 8,000 kilometers away and three continents involved in a spy plot and international conspiracy.
Working for Putin ? Russian spy? Another wife? “They are hoaxes,” replies his aunt, Ana Garcia, 66. For the inhabitants of El Espinal, a humble municipality of 10,000 inhabitants, Héctor Cabrera is practically a hero. Scholarship to train as a microbiologist at the University of Kazan (Russia). Awarded by then-President Dimitri Medvedev with the award for the best master’s thesis. Doctor with honors from the University of Giessen (Germany). Lecturer of the European Society of Cardiology. Hired by the National University of Singapore as one of the leading researchers of a study on cardiovascular diseases.
In Oaxaca, Cabrera was the genius who spoke six languages and reached unexpected heights in a place formerly used to seeing only wheat and sorghum grow. “I was born in a place where people have to work hard to have a better life and with that mantra, I have reached where I am,” the researcher wrote in a letter sent to the University of Giessen in 2017. “It doesn’t fit in my mind that Hectorcito is a spy, “laments his uncle Javier Fuentes, 64. In his town, there are those who think that a black hand moved by the US tries to end his reputation due to his scientific research.
Until he was arrested, the scientist worked as a researcher at the Duke University School of Medicine and the National University of Singapore, where he had a salary of $ 7,500 per month. In parallel, he received $ 5,000 for working for an Israeli company based in Germany. The scientist acknowledged in a Florida court that his estate was $ 100,000 distributed in bank accounts in Mexico and the United States.
Some of that money was used to help his people. “I saw and thought: ‘I would like to be like him,” says Nashira Solórzano, a 17-year-old girl who benefited from the association Por Oaxaca Más Investigadores, founded by Cabrera, with a research stay last October. “I never imagined visiting Singapore, it opened the panorama of what I wanted to be as a musician and as a person. It helped a lot,” explains Yoel Matus, 17, a member of the marimba group Pearls and Diamonds, who visited Asia in 2017 thanks to the efforts of Cabrera.
“Whenever he came, we were having a few drinks and we were telling everything: slips, problems, whatever,” explains Hazael Matus, mayor of El Espinal and one of the closest people to Cabrera, whom he has known for more than one of each. “He never told me about a girlfriend or a Russian family, he never told me to have problems with any government, that someone was threatening him,” he says. The mayor spoke with Cabrera for the last time just four days before his arrest in Miami, where the scientist had gone to celebrate the birthday of one of his Mexican children, he told him.
The only known version of the role played by Cabrera is the affidavit he made on Monday, February 17 during the oral hearing in Florida, in which he admitted that he began spying in 2018. Cabrera arrived in 2004 at Voronezh, an industrial city of Central Russia, without knowing a word of Russian and at a time when attacks on foreigners were frequent; He was even assaulted once. In 2005 he left for Kazan, a city in the Republic of Tatarstan, near the Urals, where he stayed for five years and was a notable student, according to several sources. The Federal University of Kazan, one of the main ones in the country, declined to comment on the case and has closed all the pages that mention Cabrera.
Cabrera married in Kazan with a young Muslim, Aliyá Valéyeva. After the insistence of their Russian mother-in-law, they had a traditional ceremony in the main mosque of Tatarstan. In a photograph of that day, collected by the local press as news that a relevant Mexican youth at the university had joined a young Tartar, Cabrera appears smiling, wearing the typical hat. She, with a bouquet of pink roses and a white veil. “Alejandro spoke perfect Russian, without an accent and knew many words in Tartarus,” says Lika Isaeva, who interviewed him for the local newspaper Our House Tatarstan . Isaeva, now a journalist in Komsomólskaya Pravda , says that Cabrera had a lot of social life and an acquaintance of that era highlights that the Mexican scientist was “
In 2010, Cabrera and Valéyeva went together from Kazan to Germany. There they were several years until the scientist moved to Singapore. Neither Isaeva, who maintained contact with the couple for years, nor other acquaintances in Kazan have known anything about Aliya Valeyéva or the two daughters they have in common for a long time. They are not even sure that she has returned to Tatarstan, but they are convinced that they are still married. They also believe that Cabrera was trying to obtain visas and papers for them.
According to the US judicial summary, a Russian agent offered Cabrera to facilitate the departure of his daughters from Russia – who had returned from Germany together with their mother to process their passports and were held by Russian customs agents for reasons that are unknown -, in exchange for a mission for them. “We can help each other,” said the mysterious man who sought him after a conference in Moscow.
Since then he started collaborating with them and has traveled at least five times in recent months to Moscow. On their last mission, the Russian secret services asked Cabrera to locate the car of an FBI agent, obtain the license plate number and record the physical location of the vehicle. To do this, he sneaked into a residential area of Miami, taking advantage of the fact that the door was opened and that another vehicle was entering. His operation was so subtle that it caught the attention of the building’s security team, that in minutes he found the Mexican man and his wife taking pictures with his phone and expelled them from the place.
That raised suspicions and at the airport asked to check their belongings. Agents inspected Cabrera’s wife’s phone and found an image of the vehicle’s license plate from the US Government source in the “recently deleted” folder of his phone that had been sent by WhatsApp. “When asked about the image, Cabrera Fuentes admitted that he had commissioned his partner to take the picture,” the summary said. The precipitate of his confession, the use of an inconspicuous network to transmit information that is supposed to be sensitive and the disaster of the operation contrasts with the portrait of the foreign conspirator painted by US prosecutors.
A conversation between the mayor and Cabrera’s wife reveals details that were not known about what happened in the hours before the arrest, after the altercation with the building guards. “They were going to fly to Mexico in the afternoon [February 16] and they had little time to board, it happened often,” says Matus. The couple arrived at the airport immigration control and asked them to take out their phone. “He told me they put them in separate rooms and interrogated them until two or three in the morning,” he says. Always according to this version, the couple lost the flight and spent the night in a Miami hotel. The next day, Cabrera returned to the airport with his wife and daughter, handed them two boarding passes and told them: “I’m not leaving, I have to stay to solve a problem,” to his wife’s surprise.
Diplomatic sources believe that the Russian intelligence service may have an interest in monitoring a “group of Russian traitors” who have settled in Miami. They think they could have “something about him” that could be harmful, which has led him to collaborate. That, they point out, “is not uncommon.”
The US authorities accuse him of conspiring and acting for a foreign government and if convicted he could be sentenced to life imprisonment. “What hurts the family the most is that Hector was completely alone, nobody answers the phone, everyone turned their backs,” says the mayor, who sent a letter last week to the Mexican government to intervene in favor of Cabrera
The case has become a race against the clock. With the accounts of Cabrera frozen, his relatives seek to get three million pesos (more than $ 150,000) to hire a lawyer and face the trial, which begins on March 3. The banks have denied the loan and its nearby circle is already organized to get the money. The mayor, the neighbors, the musicians, and the young students do not stop going around what happened with their most illustrious neighbor. Have you made the great pharmacists angry with your discoveries? Did it become a currency of exchange between Russia and the United States? Is it part of scientific persecution? “We do not want to be released, all we ask is that Hector has a fair trial and a real defense,” says Mayor Matus.
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