A team of investigators claims to have uncovered a deep-cover spy from Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, who spent a decade as a Latin American jewelry designer and partied with NATO staff in Naples.
Investigators say the woman went by the name Maria Adela Kuhfeld Rivera and told people she met that she was the child of a German father and Peruvian mother, born in the Peruvian city of Callao.
In fact, according to research conducted by Bellingcat in partnership with several media outlets, including La Repubblica in Italy and Der Spiegel in Germany, she was a career GRU officer in Russia and shared with the Guardian prior to publication.
“Rivera” is known to the intelligence community as an illegal, deep-cover agent who is trained to pose as a foreigner. Moscow’s intelligence agencies have used illegals since Soviet times. Sometimes, they live in their fake identities for decades.
Known as “Rivera”, he moved illegally between Rome, Malta and Paris, eventually settling around 2013 in Naples, home of NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command. She established a jewelery boutique called Seren and led an active social life.
Her acquaintances said that by working as a secretary at the Naples branch of the International Lions Club, she was able to befriend many NATO personnel and other allied people. A NATO employee told investigators he had a brief affair with “Rivera.”
Traditionally, illegals have been extremely difficult for counterintelligence agencies to detect, but in a world of biometric data, facial recognition software, and open source investigative possibilities, it has become increasingly difficult for Russia to keep its illegals under the radar.
Krysto Grozev, Bellingcat’s CEO and chief investigator, said in an interview that when he was looking at a leaked database of border crossings logged by Belarusian border guards, he discovered the potential GRU was illegal and provided by a group of opposition hackers. Under the rule of Alexander Lukashenko.
Grozev searched for Russian passport numbers that were used by GRU operatives and received several hits. Most had Russian names, but one stood out: Maria Adela Kuhfeld Rivera.
Looking more closely at “Rivera,” Grozev discovered that she traveled in a range used by other known GRU operatives with serial numbers on several Russian passports, including the officer convicted of the alleged Novichok poisoning of Bulgarian arms dealer Emilion Gebrev, and the 2018 attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury. Another GRU officer was involved.
He also discovered that on September 15, 2018, “Rivera” bought a ticket from Naples to Moscow. Earlier in the day, Bellingcat and its Russian investigative partner, Insider, published an article on the two Salisbury poisoners, who traveled under the cover identities of Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, noting irregularities in their passport data that suggested they had security service links.
It seems that “Rivera” was withdrawn by her boss, who feared that other operators with the same passport number could be compromised. She does not appear to have left Russia again.
Two months after her sudden departure from Naples, she posted a Facebook status in Italian, apparently as a way to explain her disappearance and silence.
“This is the truth that I must finally reveal … after chemo the hair is now growing back, very little but it is there. I miss everything, but I’m trying to breathe,” she wrote.
Some GRU illegals travel abroad only for quick, short-term missions and regularly change identities, while others like “Rivera” spend years under the same cover identity.
In June, the Netherlands deported a man on a Brazilian passport named Victor Müller Ferreira, accusing him of being a Russian illegal named Sergei Vladimirovich Cherkasov. He had spent a decade building his identity while studying in Ireland and the US and was suspected of trying to infiltrate the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
What is unusual about “Rivera” is that she traveled on a Russian passport, when illegals usually hide their links to Russia or the Soviet Union. It appears that an earlier attempt to pass “Rivera” as a Peruvian citizen failed: an official Peruvian document from 2006 states that her citizenship application was rejected as fraudulent.
Apparently undeterred by this setback, the GRU later relaunched the “Kuhfeld Rivera” identity with a Russian passport. It was a strange decision, but it’s possible that she had already made valuable contacts under that identity and didn’t want to lose them.
Numerous people who met “Kuhfeld Rivera” said she told them her Peruvian mother took her to the Soviet Union in the 1980s and left her there. She had tried various ways to get a Western European passport over the years.
Bellingcat said the real Russian woman behind the fake “Rivera” persona has been identified, based on matching information and photos from various databases and open source research. She did not respond to The Guardian’s requests for comment.