KAMPALA-More than $1 billion (about Shs2.7 trillion) black dollars is feared to be circulating in the economy after police discovered that a retired US army officer who entered Uganda with a sophisticated machine some time back heads a group that has been printing and selling counterfeit dollars in the country.
This information coming to the public for the first time, follows last Thursday’s arrest of an American citizen Andrew Ryan, whom police say was found with bundles of 50 denomination notes of fake dollars in his house in Mbalwa, Namugongo, Wakiso District.
Also in Mr Ryan’s house at the outskirts of the capital Kampala, police say they recovered seven money printing machines with different colours of cartridges, three pairs of US army uniforms with inscription: Ryan Andrew and a US army bag.
The arrest came on the heels of a transaction in which Stanbic Bank branch in Kakira, Jinja District, was fleeced of $300,000 (about Shs800m) in a fake dollar exchange transaction last month.
The bank, in collaboration with police, launched the hunt for the suspects. Sunday Monitor established that using the photographs which the suspects had left at Kakira branch as a requirement when they deposited the fake dollars, the police were able to trace and identify who they were.
Sunday Monitor was informed that US secret agents got interested in the case because they had earlier issued an alert that a retired American army colonel named Jack Fere had entered Uganda and was printing fake dollars which were being circulated in the economy.
The US colonel’s photograph was circulated to relevant offices. Sources said the police are so shocked by the sophistication of the fake dollar notes that they are wondering how much is already circulating in the economy undetected. But the US estimates at least $ 1billion (about Shs2.7 trillion) of fake dollars to have been injected into the Ugandan economy.
After the Kakira incident, three US secret agents joined a team of six police detectives attached to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) and two Stanbic Bank officials. Three suspects were arrested. They had all used pseudo names. The arrest of the fourth suspect failed in Kawempe, Kampala, last Saturday after he escaped amid exchange of gunfire. Intelligence sources said they suspect someone in the police tipped the suspect to escape.
As police approached the home of another suspect, one of the three suspects who were already with the police reportedly pleaded with the detectives not to guard him tightly because it would cause suspicion. He had called his colleague that he had gotten clients who wanted to buy the “dollars”.
Duped by his seeming cooperation, the police left the suspect to walk a distance freely and apparently, he signalled his friend to run away and the gunfire followed.
Another suspect would have escaped had the commander of SIU, Mr Charles Kataratambi not intervened because some police officers had decided to release him on bond. The suspects police arrested were not the printers of the black dollars but middlemen who often bought the dollars from the printers at Shs1,500 per dollar and sold it at least at Shs2000.
Busting Namugongo group
The US secret agents pulled another trick, advising police and Stanbic Bank officials to ask another informer to call a different middleman seeking to buy dollars.
They called one who lived in Namugongo. The informer was given Shs6m. A meeting was set up with the middleman at Kyaliwajjala, also in Namugongo. Police and Stanbic officials monitored the communication until the transaction was done. The middleman came with the dollars and handed over to the informer.
He moved away quickly. Police and Stanbic officials followed him. The middleman sojourned at a shop opposite Namugongo shrine to take a soda. He was under watch. But he melted away from the shop unnoticed and disappeared through the back alleys. Police gave up the chase.
But Stanbic security did not. They moved to the shop and inquired where the man, who had been drinking soda, had disappeared. He had left the soda bottle on the table and a phone.
The bank security asked one of the residents whether they knew the man to which a resident confirmed. Stanbic officials hired the resident to call the man to come back for his phone. The suspect came and the bank officials identified him and tracked him as he returned to his hideout.
When he entered the house in Mbalwa, the bank officials called police and the US secret agents alerting them of the house the man had entered. The response was swift. It was at about 4pm when the police and the US secret agents stormed the house. They found the man who had exchanged the black dollars and also found an American in the house.
They recovered different counterfeit currencies mainly Turkish, Indian, DR Congo, Uganda shillings and US dollars. The bulk of the fake dollars were in the denominations of 50 notes.
Sunday Monitor visited the scene but police would not allow us talk to the suspects. However, a source in the investigating team, told us that the American had confessed he was not alone in the trade of black dollars as it is a syndicated racket involving many other actors in the country.
By Friday, police was still sorting the counterfeit money recovered from the suspects. The investigators told Sunday Monitor that “the fake dollars could even reach one million.”
Police spokesman Fred Enanga said he was yet to get a briefing about the case. “It being a serious case, Police in Kiira Division transferred the suspects and exhibits to SIU,” he said.
A senior detective closer to the investigations said Mr Ryan had admitted to involvement in printing fake dollars and promised to cooperate with the police. The detective said Ryan told police that he was working with local Ugandans and Nigerians.
By yesterday, police had counted at least 180,480 of the fake US dollars and other currencies including Ghanaian and Euros which were recovered from the suspects. “But we are still counting because it’s a lot,” the detective said.
SIU commander Kataratambi was not available for comment.
MANY BANKS AFFECTED
After duping the Stanbic officials in Kakira, another group of fake dollar dealers, last week, attempted to exchange $30,000 at the bank’s branch in Mityana.
They first presented 6,000 dollars but the officials were alert and the scheme collapsed.
Information obtained by Sunday Monitor, reveals that several banks had fallen victim to the black dollar conmen, losing billions of shillings. Two banks (names withheld for now) suffered a similar fate as Stanbic Bank but chose to conceal the matter to avoid breeding fear among the public about the safety of their money.
In one of the banks on Parliament Avenue in Kampala, a bank official was arrested over $2.3 million fake dollars. He had sold at least $900,000 by the time he was arrested. The matter was reportedly sorted out internally by the bank agreeing to destroy the black dollars and keep the matter out of the public.
The public relations officer of Stanbic Bank, Mr Fred Mugisha, said the black dollar syndicated racket has become a national problem. “This is an industry problem; we need to have all players on board to fight it,” he said.
He said customers need to support banks in the fight by knowing that there are fake dollars on the market. “Our customers need to take care when transacting in dollars, mainly 50 dollar notes. We have a hotline for reporting fraud,” he said.
He added that the fake dollars in circulation were difficult to detect unless one is too keen. All the Stanbic staff earlier arrested in Kakira said they couldn’t detect the black dollars.