MIAMI - A Mexican scientist pleaded not guilty Tuesday to U.S. charges that he spied for Russia in Miami.
The plea was entered in a brief hearing by Ronald Gainor, attorney for 35-year-old Hector Cabrera Fuentes. Cabrera stood nearby in chains and a tan jail outfit but did not speak.
Cabrera also has now been formally indicted on a charge of acting as a Russian agent without registering as required with the U.S. attorney general. He is not charged with espionage, but this allegation still carries a potential prison sentence of 10 years.
According to an FBI affidavit, a Russian government official tasked Cabrera with tracking down a vehicle owned by a U.S. government informant in the Miami area. The job was simply to take a photo of its license plate.
The FBI says Cabrera and his Mexican wife went to a condominium complex on Valentine's Day to take the photo and were recorded by surveillance video. They attracted the notice of security by driving directly behind another car through a gate.
It's not clear exactly what the Russians were seeking, but the FBI affidavit says the informant had previously provided information about Russian intelligence operations and implications for U.S. national security.
After he was detained Feb. 16 at Miami International Airport, Cabrera told the FBI he has two wives — the Mexican one and a Russian one. The Russian woman and her two daughters were living in Germany but returned to Moscow last spring to attend to some administrative matters. Then, the Russian government wouldn't let them leave, the affidavit says.
That prompted Cabrera in May 2019 to visit his family in Moscow, where he was approached by a Russian official whom he had met previously at professional events and exchanges. Cabrera told the FBI he believed the official was an intelligence officer and that person gave him the job of photographing the Miami informant's license plate.
Cabrera, a microbiologist who has held several prestigious posts, is originally from El Espinal in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
Cabrera had been working as an associate professor at the medical school jointly run by Duke University and the National University of Singapore, and was working in Singapore. He said at a previous hearing that his contract there has been terminated.
Before Cabrera's license plate mission, the FBI says the Russian official asked him to rent an apartment in the same complex as the informant but not in his real name. Cabrera paid an associate $20,000 to do so in late 2019. It's not clear if anything was done in connection with that unit.
Cabrera is being held without bail. No trial date has been set.