Cuba uses sniffer dogs to track down crooks, dissidents

A Cuban police dog sniffs a murder weapon and is then set to sniff six bottles holding the scents of suspects, just some of the thousands of odor swabs warehoused in a Havana police building. ``Down with Raúl'' appears on a wall, and police put a dog on the writer's scent.

Cuba indeed puts police dogs to work in an eerily broad range of cases, not only finding fugitives and illegal drugs but warehousing the bottled scents of thousands of suspects so the canines can later identify criminals and political dissidents.

Havana has proudly and publicly claimed that crime investigators regularly solve cases with dogs and human scents gathered from crime scenes and suspects, which it argues are almost as unique as fingerprints.

``In the past 12 years, there have been more than 3,000 cases in which, based on scent, it has been possible to establish the identity'' of criminals, Rafael Hernández, a criminology professor at Havana University, wrote in a 2003 paper titled La Odorología Criminalística en Cuba.

He went on to describe details of the police dog program, among them the preservation of scents in pickle-like jars, the warehousing of the scents for up to five years and their use in olfactory versions of line-ups, with six bottles instead of suspects.

But U.S. experts say such broad use of dogs, especially the bottled and warehoused scents, are highly questionable in terms of evidentiary value in court, and thoroughly draconian when applied to political dissidents.

``Fraudulent, preposterous. Absolutely absurd,'' said Miami defense attorney Jeffrey S. Weiner, who has written professional papers on the legal uses of police dogs. ``A farce,'' said Miami canine unit Sgt. Leo Abad. ``Dogs can't talk. They smell a pizza. They can't say if they're smelling the cheese or something else.''

The ``odor bank'' at the Havana police offices, popularly known as ``100 and Aldabó'' after its street address, measures about 75 by 30 feet and is filled with metal shelving and clear glass jars containing cloth swabs, according to one Cuban exile who toured it in the early 1990s. He asked for anonymity to protect his relatives still in Cuba.

As for the dogs' use against dissidents, ``this is an Orwellian thing, a routine thing,'' said Havana human-rights activist Elizardo Sánchez, referring to George Orwell's 1984 tale of totalitarian repression. ``Criminality here continues to rise in an alarming manner, but they continue to prioritize the political repression.''


Hernandez's 13-page paper, written in an academic style that includes a definition of ``smell,'' notes that the use of ``criminal odorology'' started in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, was developed by the former East Germany and in 1972 was established around Communist-ruled Europe.

After East Germany collapsed in 1989, West German investigators found a warehouse packed with tens of thousands of sealed jars containing bits of cloth impregnated with the odors of criminals and dissidents -- used to identify or track them.

Cuba began building an ``odorology laboratory'' in 1989 ``with the experience of some compañeros who had visited those countries,'' Hernandez noted. Operational tests were carried out in 1991, and by 1993 the technique had been established throughout the island.

Many of the sniffer dogs are German shepherds from the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Hungary. Less threatening cocker spaniels have been used at the Havana airport.

Cuba uses the dogs for traditional security tasks: sniffing out drugs, explosives or guns, tracking fugitives, crowd control, and searching for survivors or cadavers after natural disasters. But it also uses them for an unusually expansive range of crimes.

``Odorology is applied during the investigations of murders, robbery with violence, terrorism, sabotage, theft with force, rape, illegal exhumations, theft, among other crimes,'' Hernandez wrote in his paper, published in the January-June 2003 edition of Cuban Legal Rights Magazine. A 2008 story in the official Granma newspaper noted that police use sniffer dogs in cases ranging ``from common to counterrevolutionary.''

For dissidents, ``this is routine. Without a judicial ruling, they order them to swab a little cloth on their armpits and genitals. . . . The sample is not because of anything specific. It's just to store it,'' Elizardo Sánchez said by phone from Havana. ``They say that if someone puts up graffiti against the government, the specialized dogs can identify them.''


The archives of Cubanet, a Miami group that publishes reports from opposition journalists in Cuba, include at least three cases in which police dogs were called after antigovernment graffiti appeared around the island.

But U.S. experts on the legal uses of police dogs say the Cuban system does not appear even minimally reliable.

``No scientist would know whether that [bottled-scent] swab would still be viable four, five years later,'' said Ted Daus, a Broward assistant state's attorney and expert on the evidentiary uses of scent dogs.

``Weird stuff . . . kindof bizarre,'' Michael Baton, head of the American K-9 Academy in Lisbon, Conn., said of the scent warehouse. ``It's a very rocky concept -- not completely impossible but just not a practical technique.''

Indeed, Jorge Luís Vázquez, a Cuban-born Berlin resident who has been researching STASI-Havana relations, recalled that a former STASI official once told him that storing scents for investigations did not work well in Cuba. The reason, Vázquez said he was told, was the hot and humid climate.

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