Trinidad and Tobago’s Minister of National Security, Stuart Young.
Trinidad and Tobago’s Minister of National Security, Stuart Young.

With the 2019 murder rate topping a staggering 500 for the second consecutive year, security officials in Trinidad have in the past week taken two major steps to reduce violent and organized crime, outlawing the current $100 bill and hiring a former FBI officer to help them reduce gangland violence.

The central bank has given locals up to the end of this year to dispose of hundreds of millions of $100 bills in circulation and exchange them for a new tender with modern security features.

The move, said Trinidad and Tobago’s Minister of Security, Stuart Young, is primarily designed to fight money laundering, the financing of narcotic drugs, the trade in high powered firearms, massive tax evasion, minimizing a thriving counterfeit market and countering what officials call millions of dollars circulating in the underground or black market economy. “The criminal element who must now present their money and say where it came from.”

As the deadline nears, hundreds of locals have joined long, snaking lines at various commercial banks to comply with the new regulations but the local Muslim community is up in arms against the move as it is their practice not to deposit their monies in the banking system for religious regions. They are regarded as the local bed mattress brigade.

At least one group said this week that it plans to file a constitutional motion against authorities, saying that Muslims do not normally deal with the banking system because Islamic law forbids “the involvement of usury or interest” from the banking system on their business transactions. They now fear that their non involvement with the system would leave them with millions of useless notes especially with the Christmas peak business season bringing in millions in transactions.

“Because of this prohibition, thousands of Muslims opt to stay out of the system and thus secure their funds in different ways, all legal though. But this law now puts them in a disadvantageous situation and compels a significant segment of the population to compromise their religious beliefs,” said spokesman Rasheed Karim of the Muslim Federation Ummah of Trinidad and Tobago as he urged authorities to have some form of special consideration for this religious group.

Meanwhile, police are being asked to be on the watch out for narco traffickers and others in the underworld recruiting people to stand in bank queues and exchange large sums for them for a fee as they fear arrest if they come forward. Police said they are monitoring the situation.

The police service had been pressing authorities to clamp down on organized crime, blaming the ‘sector’ for the spiraling murder rate, the presence of hundreds of high powered combat weapons in the system, drug trafficking and money laundering. Minister Young said the time had come to make such a move, noting that “I advised the cabinet that in order for us to fight money laundering, including the financing of drugs of drugs and narcotics and illegal firearms, tax evasion and the black money economy, counterfeiting and other related problems, that the government should withdraw from circulation the current TT$100 note issued by the central bank. These criminal and corrupt activities are financed by illicit money and in many instances are supported and conducted through the use of stored cash, which inter alia, is difficult to trace,” he said.

But the system to force the population to trade in their old currency has run into some problems with stores refusing to accept transactions in their still legal period because the onus would be on them rather than the holders of the motes to then exchange them at commercial banks.

The results is long lines at banks, starting in some cases from as early as daybreak. Officials expect this to intensify even more as the peak holiday seasons steps up and as the deadline nears.

Young said the counterfeit market was so good that people took single one dollar bills, bleached them and turned them into $100 notes.

“So we’re changing out the existing $100. The polymer paper immediately adds a measure of security. At national security, we have been monitoring a number of criminal activities and we believe that the storing of cash is being used to undermine good governance and the rule of law,” he said.

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