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POLITICS

The Brazilians. How the GRU turned a “Brazilian” into a “drug dealer” to get its agent out of jail

A vast network of GRU spies who have been working around the world for decades is gradually crumbling. The Insider previously published an investigation of GRU operative Adela Kuhfeldt (Olga Kolobova), who posed as a Peruvian and tried to apply for a real Peruvian passport. As it is now becoming clear, GRU illegal aliens getting IDs for themselves in Latin America is a common practice, a tradition dating back to Soviet times and, until recently, one that’s been quite successful. In this part of the investigation The Insider and Bellingcat tell a story about GRU officer Sergei Cherkasov, who managed to successfully obtain a Brazilian ID and tried to get an internship at the International Criminal Court. After the Netherlands exposed the spy and extradited him to Brazil, the Russian authorities found nothing better than to fabricate a criminal case against him for heroin smuggling in order to extradite him back home under that pretext. But they were so sloppy in copying and pasting his name into a real criminal case from ten years ago that they themselves ended up unable to make heads or tails of the evidence, which only further confirmed their connection to the failed spy.

This is a joint investigation by The Insider and Bellingcat

ALL CARDS
  • Failed student

  • Criminal charges to the rescue

  • The Kremlin gets confused

  • Appendix: Sergei Cherkasov's cover story

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Failed student

On 1 April 2022, Brazilian national Victor Muller Ferreira landed in the Netherlands at Schiphol Airport. He had flown in from the United States to begin his internship at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Ferreira had studied political science at Dublin's Trinity College and then at the American School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. Now, the ICC hired the 33-year-old political scientist as an intern to learn first-hand how war crimes in Ukraine and Syria, for example, were investigated. In his autobiography, which was later found on him, the student described in detail how his Brazilian mother died young of pneumonia, how he was raised by his aunt, how he lived in a poor neighborhood, stole socks from a store, how he fell in love with a geography teacher, how he decided to become a political correspondent and therefore studied political science (read his full autobiography in appendix at the end of this text). Victor Ferreira was not allowed into the Netherlands, was detained at the border and sent to Brazil on the next flight; the Brazilian authorities were informed his identity was believed to be false and that he himself might be a GRU officer, Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, born September 11, 1985.

When the police met him at the Brazilian airport, he, as witnesses noted, tried to protest and convince them he was as Brazilian as they were, which looked ridiculous because of his strong accent, easily audible to any native speaker. It was also quickly revealed that his late Brazilian mother had never had children. But Cherkasov was not tried for espionage, but rather for using false identity, which under local law (given how long and often he had been using it) resulted in a hefty sentence of 15 years in prison.

The Russian authorities found themselves in a difficult situation: in order to return their agent to the country they would have to admit espionage. The Kremlin approached the situation resourcefully. In July 2022, the Russian investigative authorities appealed to the Brazilian authorities for the extradition of a Russian prisoner, who, according to them, was indeed Sergei Cherkasov. However, the Russian authorities argued that Cherkasov was not a secret GRU spy, but a seasoned criminal who was hiding from Russian justice and in the early 2010s had been running a network of smugglers who supplied heroin to Russia. To support this, Russia provided Brazil with dozens of pages of indictment documents and forensic testimony. Those alleged that Sergei Cherkasov was a member of a criminal group that had been smuggling drugs from Afghanistan through Tajikistan and selling them through drug trafficking gangs in Russia between 2011 and 2013. Sergei Cherkasov had reportedly confessed to those crimes and furthermore requested deportation to Russia. The confession and the request for deportation amused the Brazilian law enforcement officials, because with such a crime (Russian Criminal Code, article 229.1, paragraph 4) in Russia, he could face from 15 years to life in prison. In fact, the inexplicable sudden outburst of patriotism served as further confirmation of his involvement with the security services.

Criminal charges to the rescue

This is not the first time that the Kremlin tried to bring “its own men” back under the pretext of a criminal investigation. For example, Artem Uss, the son of the ex-governor of the Krasnoyarsk Krai, was arrested in Italy in October 2022 in connection with the charges brought against him by the US for purchasing US military technology and Venezuelan oil in circumvention of the sanctions. In response to US extradition requests for Artem Uss, Russian authorities opened their own criminal case against him, claiming he was guilty of money laundering on a particularly large scale in Russia. As in the case of Cherkasov, the initial evidence of a criminal case against Uss surface only after his arrest in Italy.

Another example: In 2017, Turkey detained a man suspected by local authorities of complicity in the murder of a Chechen asylum seeker. French authorities requested the man's extradition to France because of his suspected involvement in the 2012 gelsemium poisoning of Alexander Perepilichny when he was testifying about Russian corruption. Russia also immediately requested the poisoner’s extradition, saying that the man's real identity was Valid Lurakhmayev (a notorious criminal leader nicknamed “Validol”). Turkey later exchanged this man for Crimean Tatar activists arrested in Russia, only he, as The Insider and Bellingcat found out, was not Validol at all, but an FSB hitman from the Vympel group named Alexander Fedin.

The Kremlin gets confused

Copies of the case materials available to Bellingcat and The Insider indicate that the Russian version of events contradicts not only easily verifiable facts, but also the logic of the case itself.

Russia originally requested the Brazilian Minister of Justice to extradite Cherkasov on June 27, 2022, one month after his conviction in Brazil. The request, signed by Russian Deputy General Prosecutor Gorodov, alleges that he had been indicted by the Moscow District Court on June 24, 2022 (three days before the letter was sent) on charges of drug trafficking as part of an organized criminal group. In the letter, the prosecutor assures that once extradited, Cherkasov will not be prosecuted on political grounds, he will be afforded the full protection of Russian law, and if convicted, he will serve his sentence in a Russian penitentiary institution.

The extradition letter is accompanied by a 20-page indictment signed by the head of the Russian Interior Ministry's anti-narcotics investigation department. The indictment alleges that Cherkasov, while in Moscow, no earlier than June 2011 accepted an offer to join an OCG involved in drug trafficking in Russia. The first paragraph of the document briefly describes Cherkasov's role as a person responsible for delivering heroin from Moscow to other members of the criminal group based in Lipetsk.

Following this introduction, the indictment describes a complex drug smuggling scheme involving several stages and requiring several border crossings from Afghanistan to Russia. The indictment introduces several other persons whose role in the drug smuggling scheme is described in great detail, including their exact locations at certain dates, the telephone numbers which they used to conduct their criminal activities, and even the locations of caches and safe houses. Indeed, the names mentioned in this detailed part of the indictment correspond to the suspects who were indicted in 2015 and found guilty in 2017 of organizing a drug smuggling chain similar to the one described in the indictment. Except that Cherkasov's name does not appear in any of the published court documents. And none of the three lawyers interviewed by The Insider (Olga Mitushina, Nina Bernatskaya, Larisa Grubaya) could recall a person by that name appearing in the case files.

The 20-page indictment provided to the Brazilian authorities is accompanied by a summons, which usually contains the defendant's signature. In this case, the summons is signed by Cherkasov's appointed lawyer with a handwritten note: “Defendant Sergei Cherkasov failed to appear without a valid excuse”.

The Russian authorities' assertions in the extradition documents convey the impression that the Russian authorities implicated Sergei Cherkasov without delay in an existing criminal case from ten years ago, in which real drug dealers had been prosecuted. There is no evidence that Cherkasov was even a suspect prior to his arrest in Brazil. Moreover, his travel records show that he was not even in Russia at the time of his alleged criminal activities.

While the bill of indictment is very specific about the periods when the other members of the OCG were engaged in criminal activity, there are no such details on Cherkasov. The only reference to a specific time, which can be checked against objective data, is in the opening paragraph of the indictment, which states that Cherkasov “ while in Moscow, no later than June 2011, accepted an offer from the head of the OCG to join the group leadership and take responsibility for the supply of drugs to drug dealers in the Lipetsk region. Further in the indictment there are two contradictory paragraphs concerning the events of August 2013. In the first paragraph on page 23, the Russian prosecutor's office states that members of the criminal group (but not Cherkasov) were detained on August 10, 2013, after which Cherkasov and his accomplice Sandalov delivered 1 kg of heroin to Lipetsk. However, a subsequent description of the same events on page 25 says that Cherkasov himself was also arrested on August 10, 2013, which allegedly led to his inability to complete the crime. This inconsistency gives the impression that Cherkasov's name was retroactively - and apparently without due care - inserted into the otherwise straightforward prosecutorial narrative. This impression is confirmed by the fact that the paragraph on page 25, which describes Cherkasov’s arrest, provides a detailed list of the arrestees, specifying the names, times and places, but does not mention Cherkasov at all.

Moreover, the Russian prosecutor's office claims that Cherkasov started his criminal activity “no later than July 2011” and was conducting it until his arrest (if there was one) in August 2013. Nevertheless, Russian travel records and border crossing stamps in Cherkasov's fake identity passport in the name of “Victor Muller Ferreira” - a copy of which is in the case file and is available to The Insider and Bellingcat - show that Cherkasov was not in Russia. This is also confirmed by an extract from the Magistral police database, which tracks the movements of Russians: Cherkasov's last domestic trip in 2011 was on January 23, 2011, when he flew from his native Kaliningrad to Moscow. Then he appears not to have traveled domestically until June 29, 2015, when he reappeared in Russia and flew from Moscow back to Kaliningrad.

The gap between 2001 and 2015 is consistent with the travel and work records of Cherkasov's alter ego, “Victor Ferreira.” “Victor’s” CV posted online shows he started working for a travel agency in Brazil in March 2011, shortly after he was last seen in Russia, according to the Magistral database. His work there, according to his CV, continued until January 2014. The data is confirmed by an extract from his employment record, which is a part of the criminal file made public during the extradition procedure and examined by The Insider and Bellingcat. It is unknown whether he worked for a real travel agency or just for a front company, but it appears that during that period Cherkasov was actually doing something in Brazil, rather than supplying heroin to Lipetsk dealers.

Finally, the most glaring contradiction: if Cherkasov had been wanted in Russia, how could he have safely returned to and traveled around his home country in the recent years? According to the Magistral databese, Cherkasov flew to Russia in 2015, 2017, 2018, 2020, and 2021, and each time he visited Kaliningrad, Moscow, Belgorod, and Samara under his own name. The Insider was also unable to find Cherkasov in any of the databases of wanted criminals in the period before he was detained in Brazil. He first appeared in the databases as a person wanted in a drug case only on June 22, 2022 - just one day before Russia's deputy prosecutor general wrote a 25-page indictment and sent it to Brazil demanding Cherkasov's extradition.

To be continued...

Appendix: Sergei Cherkasov's cover story

(found in Cherkasov's possession after his arrest, originally in Portuguese)

I, Victor Muller Ferreira, was born on April 4, 1989, in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Until November 1993, my mother and I lived in ******. Nationality - Brazilian, citizen of Brazil.

Father - ****** Ferreira, born ****** Nationality - ******, citizen of ******

Currently, my father lives in Brazil. When he was 15 years old, he found out that his biological mother died in childbirth. Her name was ******. Nationality - ******.

His father's spouse did not want to adopt him but agreed to his father acknowledging paternity and finding a caregiver for his son. ******, a close friend of his mother's, agreed to becoming my father's caregiver. In December 1974, he and his caregiver moved to ******. In December 1982, he returned to ******. He earned some money by teaching English. In 1988, his caregiver moved to ****** and communication between them was cut off. My father came to Rio in May 1988, where he met my mother. At the end of 1991, he went to ****** to get his citizenship there.

Mother - ****** Muller was born in ****** in Brazil, ******. She was a musician. She died in ****** of pneumonia, was cremated, and her ashes were buried in ****** cemetery.

My paternal grandfather was ****** Ferreira, he was born in ******. He is now retired and lives in ******.

My maternal grandfather, ****** Mueller, passed away in ****** after a heart attack.

Grandmother ****** Mueller died of cancer in ******.

When I was born, my father was living in ******. Although his love for my mother ended, he followed in the footsteps of his father (my grandfather), who many years ago officially acknowledged his kinship with his son. This is why my father returned to Brazil in early April 1989 to make things official before returning to ******. My mother had many quarrels with her parents over the unplanned pregnancy, which led to a breakdown in her relationship with them. Thus, my mother was left to herself while raising me. She earned money by performing in various restaurants and bars in Niteroi and Rio. The money was not enough. ****** - my mother's aunt - helped us a lot. She lived alone in ******.

I remember my aunt as a petit woman with gray hair, kind eyes and soft hands. She didn't speak Portuguese very well and taught me a few Spanish words. I have vivid memories from my youth of the Costa y Silva Presidential Bridge. I loved watching the cars driving over the bridge from Niteroi to Rio. But I didn't like the fish stench that hung in the port next to our house. I think that's why I hate fish, unlike most other Brazilians who enjoy everything the sea has to offer.

When my mother became ill, my aunt came to Brazil. I moved to ****** with my aunt and lived in ****** until 2011.

It was a three-story boarding house, most of the tenants were middle class, retired and without regular jobs. The house had several large rooms with high ceilings, double doors, and wooden floors. Several shared bathrooms, two kitchens with gas stoves, a room for washing and drying clothes, and an outdoor terrace. The monthly rent was $100-130. My aunt worked as a home-based seamstress. She sewed dresses and shirts, which she then sold at the market. The room was always cluttered with sawing patterns and rolls of colorful fabric. But I loved the sewing machine most of all, though my aunt never let me touch it; when I did, she said it was the only thing in her life that still worked properly.

Despite our financial difficulties, we lived together in perfect harmony. I loved my aunt. Neighbors came and went, but I remember ****** very well. At that time, he was the oldest boy I knew. One day when I was home alone (it was a market day, so my aunt was away), ****** knocked on the door. He said he was Gray Shadow (a fairy tale character) and would eat me. This scared me so much that I spent the whole day in a little box on the balcony, praying until my aunt came home.

I attended kindergarten ******, which was also an elementary school. The school was located on ****** street. The kindergarten had been there since 1993. There were 150-200 children there. It was an old two-story building (there used to be a seminary there back in the day). In my childhood I was often ill, so I didn't spend much time in kindergarten. I started elementary school when I was seven years old.

Because of financial problems caused by the crisis that hit the country in 2001, we moved to a cheaper family hotel at ******. It was a two-story boarding house with an attic, where poor people lived. Compared to the previous accommodation, it was just awful. The ceilings were leaking and had water stains on them. The floorboards creaked so that every time someone went to the bathroom or the kitchen, everyone knew about it. There was a family of three living on the ground floor who were saving up for a down payment on their mortgage. We liked to go to their house to drink mate. The monthly rent was about $80-100.

That same year, when I was twelve years old, I started going to ****** school, which is located on ****** street. There were about 600-700 students in that school. The school motto was “Let's move forward together”. When I started school, the class consisted of 30 students. The principal of the school at that time was Mrs. ******. She was loved and respected by all the students. She was an elderly lady, and pretty soon she was replaced by Mrs. ******, who taught ******. Both the students and the other teachers hated her, they thought she was a bit silly. It was said that with her arrival some of the school traditions were abandoned, many respected teachers left then. I liked music lessons because we did not have to learn anything, and we were allowed to talk and play during the lesson. The music teacher's name was ******, but everyone called her ******.

In February 2004, my aunt was hospitalized due to heart problems, and I had to drop out of school. I had to work to earn money for medicine and to pay our rent. In 2005 I went to ****** school at ******.

What I remember about my time in high school is that during my studies I had to work in the ****** commercial area on ****** Street - handing out flyers and selling things. I liked working outside the shop selling socks and underwear, because I always managed to steal some socks.

Much later, I got a job as an apprentice in a garage near the ****** apartment block. There was a small shop, with a parking space in the middle that barely fit three cars. There were wheels piled along the walls. There was a constant smell of grease and vulcanized rubber. On the supply office door hung a poster of a young Veronica Castro, later replaced by a poster of Pamela Anderson. The store owner was very fat (rumor had it he was from ******) and everyone called him Mr. ****** or just ******. He was known for his exuberant temper and reticence when it came to his background, i.e. how he had acquired the money to open a chain of stores in different parts of the city. As a rule, he would come to the office on payday. If he came before that day, it meant that something bad was about to happen.

At work, I was friends with ******, who lived on the ****** block and was a fan of ******. I supported ******, which made our friendship weird and original, and we liked to joke about it. His parents drank, so the boy stayed away from home and school. He liked to say that the street was the best school. Sometimes he lived with friends when he rented a room at ******, constantly moving from one place to another. When he was nervous, he stuttered, so it was difficult for him to communicate with girls. We had our own tactic: ****** would smile, attracting girls, and I would start chatting with them. In high school, I especially liked the geography teacher, Mrs. ******. She was very beautiful, and all the boys in the class had a crush on her. Many came with stories that started the same way: the teacher asked them to stay late after school - but ended differently: one saw her dancing a striptease, others had sex with her. I didn't like those stories, I felt my crush on ****** was real and honest.

I don't like to remember those years because my classmates often joked about my appearance and accent. Although I looked like a German, they called me “gringo”. So I had few friends and spent a lot of time with my aunt, who liked to show me old albums with family photos. She always said I looked like my grandmother ******. When she talked about my mother, she always mentioned that she had been a perpetual child - frivolous and excitable. Falling in love and being disappointed in people was easy for her, as was the case with my father. But when I was born, she suddenly changed. She became more responsible and sensible. My mother collected butterflies, but she had to sell the collection to pay for her treatment.

Because of the constant lack of money, I didn't travel much: I went on one school trip to the ****** waterfalls and another time with friends to a seaside resort in ******. At school I took part in biblical and historical plays. I also did a bit of dancing, but due to lack of time, I only started going occasionally and all the skills I had back then have been lost.

In ****** my aunt died of heart failure. She is buried at the ****** cemetery. Her grave is in plot ******. Before she died, she gave me a prayer book and a medallion, which I still keep to this day. After my aunt, the only person close to me, died, I dropped out of school and moved in with my friend ******. In those days, he lived at ****** in an apartment with four other teenagers who, like him, lived literally from day to day. What I remember well was the layout of the apartment - the kitchen was more like a closet, whose door could only be opened when the door to the bathroom was open.

Despite mental trauma and financial difficulties, I decided to finish school. I chose social sciences and humanities as majors. There were two other options: foreign languages and cultures and technical sciences. The humanities were very difficult, and because I was ambitious, I wanted to prove to myself and others that I could pass the most difficult exams, despite my low social status. During the History of Sociology exam, which was one of my least mastered subjects, I managed to take my coat with me. I used it throughout the whole exam, and thanks to that I got the nickname Zorro. In November 2009, I passed my exams and got my bachelor's degree.

I was a fan of ******. During one of their games, I met ******, a woman ******, who told me that her sister ****** was studying and working in ****** and that she wanted to go there to live. Since then, I started thinking about studying abroad at a good university.

In 2007, during a visit to ******, I met a journalism student ****** who worked as a journalist for a local newspaper and wrote political articles in support of ****** and their presidential candidate ******. As a result of my interaction with ******, I started thinking about working as a political correspondent or a journalist, which determined my choice of direction in higher education.

Since I did not have enough money for higher education, I decided to track down my father. Before she died, my aunt ****** gave me my father's address in ******, but she said she had not received any letters from him in five years. After I wrote to that address, I learned that my father had moved to Brazil and had been living near Rio de Janeiro. When I wrote to him there, the answer came surprisingly quickly. My father had been looking for me for a long time.

In August 2010, I came to Rio to meet my father. We agreed to meet at ******. My father turned out to be a very friendly and open person, but to my surprise I found myself blaming him for the deaths of my mother and aunt, as well as for all the difficulties and humiliations I had experienced in my life. For that reason, the conversation was very tense, despite my father's sincere desire to be a part of my life. Added to this was the fact that my father did not speak Spanish well and I had forgotten Portuguese. Still, I decided to stay in Brazil to learn the language and reclaim my citizenship. It was psychologically difficult to live with my father, so I moved to Brasilia, thus killing two birds with one stone: first, the capital city was the best place to solve my citizenship problems since all the important government institutions were located there, and second, it was a good excuse not to see my father.

In September 2010, I moved to Brasilia. I lived in the ****** neighborhood. The rent was 1000 reais per month. I stayed at a long stay hotel; the rooms were identical to the ones I had lived in with my childhood friend ******. Later, I found cheaper accommodation for 550 reais per month at ******. While dealing with the issue of regaining my citizenship, I took private Portuguese lessons. In my spare time, I went to see the city’s cultural attractions. I enjoyed healthy eating restaurants, of which there are few in ******, particularly A Tribo, which is located at SCLN 105, Bl. B 52-59, North Wing. This restaurant serves the best brown bean stew in town. Several times I have visited the Macadamia Club, which is located at SCES Tr.2, Conj 31, South Wing. It is the only club that plays trance music. I keep in touch with my father via the internet.

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