- Darius Brooks
- BBC News World
The distinguished career of Mexican scientist Héctor Alejandro Cabrera Fuentes took an unexpected turn two years ago.
The molecular biologist, who at one time was considered by the Mexican government to be one of the most outstanding Mexicans abroad, became involved in a espionage scheme for which he was sentenced to four years in prison in the United States.
A federal judge imposed a reduced sentence on Tuesday after Cabrera Fuentes pleaded guilty to having acted without authorization as foreign agentFrom Russia on US territory.
The 37-year-old Mexican said it was “biggest mistake” of his life and asked the judge for “clemency”.
Before being arrested in February 2020, the scientist had excelled in the field of medical research and won several international awards.
Coming from a rural town in Mexico, where access to education is difficult, Cabrera Fuentes had been praised many times.
“I dreamed of being a scientist and I achieved it,” he told the Mexican newspaper The universal in 2019, after receiving recognition from the University of Giessen, in Germany, for his scientific contributions.
Born in El Espinal, a small town in the region of the Isthmus of Oaxaca, one of the poorest states from Mexico, Cabrera Fuentes found a scientific vocation as a child.
He said that the book “Microbe Hunters”, by the American scientist Paul de Kruif, changed his life and made him interested in the world of microbiology.
In particular, the Russian Ilyich Mechnikov became his role model.
He entered the university in the neighboring state of Puebla, and in his first semesters of biomedicine he obtained a scholarship to finish his degree at the Federal University of Kazan (Russia).
He specialized in molecular biology and received his doctorate in biochemistry and microbiology at the University of Giessen (Germany).
Among his most outstanding works was the development of a treatment to regenerate burned skin elaborated in the Center of Biotechnology-Femsa of the Technological Institute of Monterrey (Mexico).
He also participated in research on atherosclerosis, the medical condition that causes the arterial walls to accumulate fat and cholesterol particles.
With a team of colleagues, they demonstrated what was happening in the body during a cardiac event and developed a technique to prevent cell death and thus save lives.
For this research, he won the 2018 Servier Award from the International Society for Heart Research.
Four years ago he created a program called “For Oaxaca, more researchers” to offer university study abroad facilitiesto the youth of his home state so that they could then go back and help the communities.
Until his arrest, the Institute for Mexicans Abroad mentioned him as one of the outstanding Mexicans abroad.
His relationship with Russia
Although he had a wife in Mexico, Cabrera Fuentes began a relationship with a Russian citizen during a stay in Germany prior to his arrest.
On a trip to Russia, the woman could no longer leave the country due to immigration problems.
According to the US Department of Justice indictment, a Russian official “recruited” the Mexican in 2019 in exchange for helping him so that his Russian partner could return to Germany.
His mission was to locate in Florida a vehicle belonging to a Washington collaborator who was providing information about the Russian government.
“He told Cabrera Fuentes to locate the car, obtain the source’s license plate number and note the physical location of the vehicle,” the investigation reads.
Cabrera Fuentes traveled to the city of Miami to carry out the task in the company of his Mexican partner. After breaking into a condominium illegally, they found the indicated vehicle.
While trying to leave the United States on February 16, 2020, the couple was intercepted at the airport by federal agents.
On one of his cell phones “they found a close-up image of the US government source vehicle license plate in the ‘recently deleted’ folder on your phone,” according to the US investigation.
Cabrera Fuentes then “admitted to law enforcement that a Russian government official ordered him to carry out this operation.”
Cabrera Fuentes faced a maximum sentence of 10 years, but the guilty plea and a plea deal with prosecutors reduced his sentence.
His defense presented several letters to the judge, some of them researchers who knew him and asked to take into account the trajectory of the Mexican before being sentenced.
“As a colleague of mine, Hector did not hesitate to work, build a relationship with students and young faculty, prepare and deliver thoughtful and rigorous research, and instantly become a trusted and needed member of the World Circle of Experts in Cardiology,” said Dr. Victor L. Serebruany, from the Johns Hopkins University in the USA.
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