Your passport to insider risk: Brazil’s Secret Sanctuary for Russian Spies

In startling revelations, the intricate web of international spies has woven its way into Brazil. Recent investigations have uncovered a series of covert operations orchestrated by Russian Intelligence agents under false Brazilian identities. The cases of Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, Mikhail Mikushi and Gerhard Daniel Campos Wittich, shed light on the nature of Russian infiltration in the West, exposing vulnerabilities within Brazil’s own document issuance systems.


In 2022, the gripping saga of espionage took a dramatic turn with the arrest of Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, an alleged Russian intelligence officer apprehended in Brazil. This captivating story unfolded after Cherkasov failed to enter the Netherlands following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. His audacious plan involved infiltrating the esteemed International Court of Justice in The Hague by assuming an intern’s identity. Russian intelligence highly values covert access to International Criminal Court information, particularly due to ongoing investigations into war crimes in Ukraine and Georgia. Cherkasov aimed to exploit his ICC internship for unauthorized access to their facilities and systems. In the Netherlands, the AIVD and MIVD diligently work to minimize potential harm to national security and the integrity of international organizations. The intelligence officer in question is considered a significant and potentially dangerous threat.


The plot thickens as it is revealed that Cherkasov, under the alias Viktor Muller Ferreira, also masterfully deceived authorities in the United States. During his time in the U.S. from 2018 to 2020, he cunningly posed as a student enrolled in a master’s program at Johns Hopkins University. These actions have raised suspicions that Cherkasov strategically exploited his fabricated identity to gain access to esteemed educational institutions across North America and Europe, all the while collecting sensitive information aligned with Russian interests.


Upon scrutinising the suspect’s banking transactions, Brazilian Federal Police discovered several irregular deposits, which investigators interpret as evidence of a Russian government support network operating in Brazil. During their investigation, the police identified a member of the Russian Consulate, Aleksei Matveev, who visited a bank agency in Rio de Janeiro to make one of the identified deposits. These findings undermine Moscow’s extradition request, which claims that Cherkasov is only being sought for drug trafficking charges in Russia.


The involvement of Russian government elements in Brazil adds another layer of complexity to the ongoing investigation. It raises serious questions about the extent of espionage networks operating in the region.


Similarly, back in November, another individual under the guise of a Brazilian, José de Assis Giammaria, faced arrest in Tromsø, Norway. Norwegian authorities assert that his true identity is Mikhail Mikushin, a Russian colonel who masqueraded as a Brazilian and worked as a researcher at the Arctic University. Before his arrival in Norway, Giammaria had spent time in Canada, where he pursued studies in security-related subjects


Just a few months ago, The Guardian reported another intriguing case of a “Brazilian” man named Gerhard Daniel Campos Wittich that went missing during a trip to Malaysia in January, sparking a frantic search by his girlfriend in Rio de Janeiro. However, surprising news emerged from Athens, revealing that Wittich was allegedly a deep-cover Russian spy using a false identity. Greek media reported that he was part of an elite Russian intelligence program and had been trained to impersonate a foreigner for years. Wittich, known as Daniel Campos in Brazil, had lived in Rio for years and owned 3D printing companies. Wittich’s connections within Brazil, including military installations and government agencies as clients of his 3D printing business, suggest his access to potentially critical information. 


These cases provide valuable insights into Russia’s “Illegals” program, which played a crucial role as intelligence assets during the Soviet era, especially in the 1920s when the Bolshevik regime lacked diplomatic recognition from other nations. Soviet intelligence services referred to these operatives as “illegals” because they assumed fictitious identities while operating abroad. The existence and potential expansion of Russia’s network of illegals emphasize the ongoing relevance and effectiveness of this covert approach in the present day. Despite significant geopolitical changes, the clandestine realm of espionage remains dynamic, adjusting to new obstacles and leveraging emerging possibilities.

But the question remains: why Brazil? Experts within the Brazilian intelligence community, researchers, and individuals familiar with Brazil’s notary registration system highlight three key factors (1) The existing systems for issuing and managing documents in Brazil are identified as vulnerable points that can be exploited by individuals seeking to create false identities or acquire fraudulent documentation. (2) Brazil’s historical track record of non-involvement in international conflicts has created an environment where the country is perceived as having lower security risks. This perception may make it easier for foreign individuals, including potential spies, to blend in without raising suspicion. (3) Brazil’s diverse and multicultural population provides ample opportunities for individuals to assume different identities and backgrounds, facilitating the creation of cover stories and making it harder to detect those operating under false pretences.


The fragile system of issuance stands out in two of these cases. In the case of Cherkasov, investigations reveal that his birth certificate was issued in April 1989 at a registry office in Rio de Janeiro. This document served as a foundation for obtaining other identification documents, including an identity card, national driver’s licence, passport, and even the Unified Health System (SUS) card. Moreover, the discovery of documents on flash drives belonging to Cherkasov sheds light on his interactions with a former employee of a registry office, who assisted him in authenticating alleged document copies without requiring the presentation of originals, which is an irregular practice.


Similarly, Mikushin’s birth certificate was issued at a registry office in Padre Bernardo. With this document in his possession, he successfully posed as a Brazilian university student and pursued undergraduate and master’s degrees at two different Canadian universities. Subsequently, he embarked on his latest mission, joining a group of Norwegian researchers specialising in studying threats and hybrid wars.


The Brazilian authorities are now alert to the potential collusion between Russian operatives and public notary officials in Brazil. But flaws and vulnerabilities in their system remain. 


The activities witnessed in Brazil have far-reaching implications that reverberate across international intelligence circles, shedding light on the pervasive nature of state-sponsored espionage. Similar cases in various other countries further underscore this point. These incidents also offer valuable insights into the prevailing patterns of insiders infiltrating academic environments in nations celebrated for their outstanding knowledge and competitive advantages. Moreover, they serve as a stark reminder of intelligence agencies’ relentless endeavours to acquire valuable intellectual resources and sensitive information. The utilisation of covert tactics for exploitation emphasises the critical need to safeguard intellectual property and uphold strong security measures.

Isabela Serra

Author: Isabela Serra

Insider Risk Analyst

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