Cuba uses sniffer dogs to track down dissidents
- From: Free Cuba Now <freecubanow@xxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Fri, 11 Sep 2009 17:42:36 -0700 (PDT)
CRIME IN CUBA
Cuba uses sniffer dogs to track down crooks, dissidents
Cuba extols the successes of its police sniffer-dog program, but U.S.
experts question its broad use and its reliance on an aging, bottled
collection of scents.
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
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
``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
``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.''
ROOTS OF PROGRAM
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-
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
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
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
``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.
Hernandez's paper, in Spanish, is at http://tinyurl.com/nlsspq.
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