MEXICO CITY (AP) — A Mexican microbiologist accused of spying for Russia in Miami is considered a benefactor in his native state of Oaxaca, the mayor of his hometown said Wednesday, and he holds positions with at least two prominent universities.
Mayor Hazael Matus said scientist Hector Alejandro Cabrera, who teaches in Singapore, has helped set up science projects in his hometown of El Espinal. Cabrera was known for his work on cardiac treatments and was hoping to produce an ointment to help heal wounds in diabetics in his home state.
"It is very strange for this to happen because he is a very altruistic person with a lot of social conscience. He helped people and all this seems strange," Matus said. “We don't know what happened, but I bet it is a confusion or an attack for scientific reasons. He may have discovered something that upset some people or some business interests.”
U.S. authorities said Tuesday that Cabrera had been hired by a Russian government official to find the vehicle of a U.S. government informant in the Miami area and inform the Russians of its location. The informant was not identified, but was said to have provided information to the U.S. on Russian intelligence operations.
Officials said in an affidavit that Cabrera has a Mexican wife and simultaneously also has a Russian wife. According to the affidavit, the Russian wife traveled back to her home country last March to arrange some documents, but she was prevented from returning to Germany in what may have been part of an effort by the Russians to pressure Cabrera into working for them.
Cabrera then visited Moscow and his family last May and was approached by the Russian official, the affidavit said. The Russian official, it said, brought up Cabrera’s family situation in Russia and said, “We can help each other.”
Cabrera told the FBI that the Russian official said they had met previously in professional events and exchanges, the affidavit said.
Cabrera was arrested on charges of acting within the United States on behalf of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. attorney general and conspiracy, according to the Justice Department. A pretrial detention hearing was set for Friday in Miami and arraignment for March 3.
Cabrera is listed as an associate professor at the medical school jointly run by Duke University and the National University of Singapore.
He also was appointed director in 2018 of the FEMSA Biotechnology Center at the Monterrey Institute of Technology in northern Mexico, which said he earned doctorates in molecular microbiology in Russia and molecular cardiology in Germany.
Matus, the mayor, described Cabrera as a hometown boy who made good, going to Russia to study for his graduate degrees.
But he said Cabrera never forgot his hometown of 9,500 inhabitants and helped organize the scientific community to assist in rebuilding houses in El Espinal after a magnitude 8.1 quake hit Sept. 7, 2017, and a 6.1 temblor struck two weeks later. The town has a large Zapotec indigenous community.
Cabrera had been scheduled to attend meetings in Mexico on Monday about a series of research centers that he was helping establish in El Espinal as part of a government project to upgrade rail links between the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico across the narrow Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The $430 million project is one of the infrastructure priorities of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Cabrera was a leading promoter of El Espinal's role in the project, helping recruit Mexican universities and government agencies to set up research centers on medicine, seismology, logistics and other topics in the town.
According to the Justice Department, a Russian government official recruited Cabrera in 2019. The Russian official later directed him to rent a specific property in Miami-Dade County, but not in his own name, the Justice Department said.
Cabrera traveled twice to Moscow to meet with the official, the Justice Department said, and during the second meeting received a physical description of the U.S. government source’s vehicle. The Russian official allegedly told Cabrera to locate the car, obtain the license plate number and note the location, with the goal of providing that information in April or May.
The Justice Department said Cabrera, having traveled from Mexico City to Miami on Feb. 13, attracted the attention of a security guard where the U.S. government source resided because his rental car entered the premises while tailgating another vehicle.
According to the indictment, Cabrera asked his Mexican wife, who accompanied him, to take a photo of the source’s vehicle and license plate even though the Russian official had told him not to take a photo.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection stopped Fuentes and his wife when they appeared at Miami’s airport Sunday night to return to Mexico City. Cabrera admitted to law enforcement officers that he was directed by a Russian government official to conduct the operation, the Justice Department said.