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
Miami Herald
09/09/2009

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.”

The entire article is here.

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