A team of investigators pretend to have unmasked an undercover spy for Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, who spent a decade posing as a Latin American jewelry designer and partying with Naples-based NATO personnel.
Investigators say the woman was named Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera and told people she met that she was the child of a German father and a Peruvian mother, born in the town of Callao, Peru.
In fact, she was a career GRU officer in Russia, according to Bellingcat research in partnership with a number of outlets, including La Repubblica in Italy and Der Spiegel in Germany, and shared with the Guardian ahead of publication.
“Rivera” was what the intelligence community calls an illegal, undercover agent trained to impersonate a foreigner. Moscow’s intelligence agencies have been using illegals since the beginning of the Soviet period. Sometimes they continue to live under their false identity for decades.
Posing as “Rivera”, the illegal moved between Rome, Malta and Paris, eventually settling in Naples, headquarters of NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command, around 2013. She set up a jewelry boutique called Serein and led an active social life.
Her acquaintances said that by taking on the role of secretary at the Naples branch of the International Lions Club, she was able to befriend many NATO personnel and other affiliates. A NATO employee told investigators he had a brief romantic relationship with “Rivera”.
Traditionally, stowaways have been extremely difficult for counterintelligence agencies to find, but in a world of biometric data, facial recognition software and open source investigative possibilities, it has become harder for Russia to keep its stowaways under the radar.
Bellingcat CEO and lead investigator Christo Grozev said in an interview that he first found the trail of a possible illegal GRU when he was looking at a leaked database of border crossings recorded by Belarusian border guards. and provided by a group of hackers in opposition. to the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.
Grozev searched for Russian passport numbers in ranges known to have been used by GRU agents and found numerous results. Most had Russian names, but one stood out: Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera.
On closer inspection of “Rivera”, Grozev discovered that she was traveling with multiple Russian passports with serial numbers in a range used by other known GRU agents, including an officer who had been indicted for the poisoning. suspected novichok to Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, and another GRU officer allegedly involved in the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in 2018.
He also found out that on September 15, 2018, “Rivera” bought a ticket from Naples to Moscow. The day before, Bellingcat and its Russian investigative partner, the Insider, published an article on the two Salisbury poisoners, who traveled under cover of the identities Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, noting irregularities in their passport data suggesting they had links to the security services.
It appears that “Rivera” was taken down by her bosses, who feared that other agents with similar passport numbers could be compromised. She no longer seems to have left Russia.
Two months after her sudden departure from Naples, she posted a Facebook status in Italian, apparently to explain her disappearance and silence.
“It’s the truth that I finally have to reveal… The hair is now growing after the chemo, very short but it’s there. I miss everything, but I’m trying to breathe,” she wrote.
Some GRU illegals only travel overseas on quick, short-term assignments and regularly change identities, while others like “Rivera” spend years inhabiting the same cover identity.
In June, the Netherlands deported a man who arrived with a Brazilian passport bearing the name of Viktor Muller Ferreira, accusing him of being a Russian illegal immigrant by the name of Sergei Vladimirovich Cherkasov. He had apparently spent a decade preparing his identity, including study stints in Ireland and the United States, and was suspected of trying to infiltrate the international criminal tribunal in The Hague.
The unusual thing about “Rivera” is that she traveled on a Russian passport, whereas stowaways usually disguise their ties to Russia or the Soviet Union. It appears that an earlier attempt to pass “Rivera” off as a Peruvian citizen failed: an official Peruvian document from 2006 notes that her citizenship application was rejected as fraudulent.
Seemingly unfazed by the setback, the GRU then relaunched the “Kuhfeldt Rivera” identity with a Russian passport. It was a strange decision, but it’s possible she’s already made some valuable contacts under this identity and doesn’t want to lose them.
Many people who met “Kuhfeldt Rivera” said she told them her Peruvian mother took her to the Soviet Union in 1980 and left her there. She had apparently tried various avenues to obtain a Western European passport over the years.
Bellingcat said he had identified the real Russian woman behind the fake “Rivera” persona, based on information and photo matches from various databases and open source searches. She did not respond to requests for comment from the Guardian.