On Valentine’s Day 2020, a security guard at a Miami hotel spotted a couple in a car tailing another car and snapping pictures of its license plate. Suspicious of the behavior, the security guard reported it to the police, who questioned and arrested the couple. It turned out, the FBI would later say, that half of the couple was prominent cardiovascular researcher Hector Cabrera Fuentes—and that he was surveilling an FBI agent at the direction of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service.
For a year, Cabrera Fuentes maintained his innocence. But recently the scientist pleaded guilty to spying for Russia in the US following an FBI investigation that also exposed Cabrera Fuentes’s double life; he had separate families in Russia and in Mexico. Two of Cabrera’s scientific colleagues tell The Scientist that they were shocked to hear news of his arrest and that the charges are hard for them to believe.
Hector Cabrera Fuentes in Rome
Courtesy of Olga Ilinskaya
Born in 1985 in El Espinal, a small village in Oaxaca, Mexico, Cabrera Fuentes initially studied in Mexico, where he married his Mexican wife, according to El Pais. A colleague who asked not to be named tells The Scientist that Cabrera Fuentes later spent a significant amount of time in Russia, graduating from Kazan Federal University, a public university in Russia, with a master’s in molecular biology in 2009. While at Kazan, he met and married his Russian wife, Aliya Valéyava. The two later moved to Germany, where Cabrera Fuentes completed his PhD with honors at the Justus Liebig University Giessen. His dissertation work focused on the molecular mechanisms of atherosclerosis and heart attack. He remained in a postdoctoral position at Justus Liebig until 2018. Most recently, Cabrera Fuentes had been employed as a visiting researcher at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, where he identified targets of therapies to treat ischemia-reperfusion injury and myocardial infarction.
In 2018, Cabrera Fuentes’s Russian wife and their children had to return to Russia to complete immigration and other paperwork, while Cabrera Fuentes remained behind. Once they were there, they were unable to return to Germany, according to an FBI report that accompanied the records from the hearing.
The report also noted that an individual who Cabrera Fuentes believed to be a Russian agent contacted him and offered to help with his Russian wife’s immigration situation in May 2019. In exchange, the Russian official asked Cabrera Fuentes to collaborate with Russian intelligence, telling Cabrera Fuentes that “we can mutually help each other.” Cabrera Fuentes then began spying on the behalf of Russian intelligence until his arrest, reports El Universal.
In September 2019, a Russian official tasked Cabrera Fuentes with renting a property in the Miami-Dade area under a fake name, giving him $20,000 USD to do so, BBC News reports. On a subsequent visit to Russia in February 2020, Cabrera Fuentes was given the description of a vehicle belonging to a US FBI agent and told to obtain the vehicle’s license plate information, but not to take photographs of it. His next visit to Miami led to his arrest.
After Cabrera Fuentes and his Mexican wife were arrested, police found photos of the car’s license plate on his Mexican wife’s phone, in the deleted files and in several WhatsApp chats. After hours of questioning, Cabrera Fuentes admitted to being in contact with someone who he believed to be a Russian operative, reports BBC News. His wife was released and she left with his daughter to Mexico, while Cabrera Fuentes remained under arrest in the US.
On February 16, 2022, Cabrera Fuentes, handcuffed and clad in a beige jumpsuit, pleaded guilty when he appeared in court after he and his legal team reached an agreement with the prosecution, El Pais reports. He was charged with violating a law that requires individuals to notify the Justice Department that they are working as an agent for a foreign government. According to Spanish news agency EFE, Cabrera Fuentes answered several questions in English during the hearing, confirming that he understood the implications of affirming that he had acted as an “agent of a foreign government” on US soil. Cabrera Fuentes faces up to 10 years in prison, but as part of the plea bargain, prosecutors recommended a four-year sentence. A hearing to determine his sentence is scheduled for May 17, NBC News reports. The researcher’s legal team did not speak to the press at the time of the hearing and did not respond to a request from The Scientist to comment.
Throughout his career, Cabreras Fuentes has been a highly prolific researcher, coauthoring more than 50 papers, and receiving several scientific awards for his work. Colleagues who spoke with The Scientist say that he had a large role in putting together international scientific collaborations and helped organize several scientific conferences, including the annual Frontiers in Cardiovascular Research conference. Cabreras Fuentes had ongoing collaborations with researchers in Mexico, Germany, Russia, and other countries.
Some of Cabrera Fuentes’s close collaborators say they still find the news that he was in contact with a Russian agent difficult to grasp. The news also came as a shock to those who knew one of his families, although they added Cabrera Fuentes rarely spoke about his personal life. At first, and throughout the year leading up to his guilty plea, many close friends and members of his family maintained his innocence, organizing a protest against the charges in early 2020, according to El Universal.
“Truthfully, it was very, very sad,” Juan Alpuche, a marine biologist at Universidad Autonoma Benito Juarez in Oaxaca who collaborated frequently with Cabrera Fuentes on scientific communication efforts in El Espinal, tells The Scientist in Spanish. “Dr. Fuentes is still a pillar of science in Oaxaca. . . . He is still greatly admired in the community.” El Pais reports that many people there still say that they don’t believe the charges against Cabrera Fuentes.
“I can’t believe he is any kind of agent. He is just too sociable, and easily responds to any requests. . . . Of course, I have no reliable information about what happened to him in the USA,” Kazan Federal University molecular biologist Olga Ilinskaya, who oversaw Cabrera Fuentes’s master’s research, writes in an email to The Scientist. Ilinskaya says she most recently collaborated with Cabrera Fuentes in 2014.
“Anything is possible,” Cabrera Fuentes told El Universal in 2018, after receiving a prize from the Justus Liebig University Giessen for his scientific achievements. “I dreamed of being a scientist and I achieved it.”