ON A SUNDAY MORNING in East Hollywood a few months ago, I ran out of my apartment because I thought that the taqueria next to the swap meet was on fire. I hurried down the block towards the supposed inferno until I remembered that Pollo al Carbón is always on their Sunday menu.
Since I was already out of the house, I decided to indulge in a charbroiled chicken taco and take a stroll through the nearby mercado. The market’s entrance was policed by a middle-aged Korean security guard whose only defense was a small canister of pepper spray.
His services were necessary. He was responsible for protecting the many stalls specializing in fake Reeboks, counterfeit Hannah Montana backpacks, and pirated cumbia discs. Everything in the market was inauthentic. The food court even had a Jamba Juice knock-off: Jamba Express. I suspected that the pricey “14-karat gold” bracelets were made from alloys that only deceptively resembled gold. The only service you could count on as being real was a “$2 key duplication.” Fitting for an entire marketplace dedicated to The Business of The Copy.
There’s something very appealing about the counterfeit. The black market response to consumer capitalism proposes alternate realities. The shoddy production and frequent misspellings add something to the original. These blemishes in the simulacra remove us from the homogenized world that we’re most familiar with. The counterfeit takes us into an alternate dimension that feels almost exactly like our planet — but with something slightly off.
When I lived in Mexico, ten-peso pirated DVDs were my connection to popular culture. The Net 2.0 and Cheaper by the Dozen 2 allowed me to maintain common ground to joke with friends back home about terrible contemporary movies. And my wardrobe at the time was accented by a fake Adidas jumpsuit that I’d picked up in La Paz and a pair of Pömos that I’d bought in Bogotá.
Buying counterfeit products is simple: Just walk into any market in Latin America and buy anything, from any merchant. You could haggle, but asking to buy the 10 peso Justin Bieber CD for 8 pesos saves you 14¢. (You’ve already exploited the artist, now you’re trying to exploit the vendor? C’mon man! These shopkeepers are trying to put food on their tables — plus who in the heck buys a collection of Justin Bieber MP3s anyway? True Beliebers only listen to his full-length albums and whichever clips his management decides to put on YouTube).
Counterfeiting is a worldwide industry that by some estimates does over $250 billion worth of business every year. This results in billions of dollars of lost revenue for authentic manufacturers — or it would, if people actually planned to buy their products in the first place. Many in the developing world probably wouldn’t be spending their small disposable incomes on expensive luxury items.
Seventy percent of Mexicans in major cities admit to buying pirated media. Piracy is so pervasive that in 2010 the Mexican Senate questioned and eventually withdrew from the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which included a provision that allowed Internet Service Providers to supply information on alleged copyright infringers without a warrant to copyright holders.
Mexico recognized that new technology is an “essential part of the recent changes in the economy and society” and removed itself from the US business-authored agreement because it doesn’t benefit Mexicans: “Currently those who do not have access to new information technologies are condemned to digital illiteracy, which in other words means an isolation from modernity,” concluded the report from the Mexican Senate.
This is good news for those looking to close the digital divide, as well as for those looking for great deals on Hannah Montana backpacks.
International black market magnates skirt copyright laws to cater to the demand for nonessential entertainment and luxury items. Counterfeiting is a form of corruption that ultimately benefits the consumer. If people don’t want to pay for knockoff goods they don’t have to.
There is another form of corruption that’s just as pervasive in Latin America, but doesn’t work by simple market rules. This type of unscrupulousness is also economic but is ultimately about power. Authority sells a small piece of their power to the powerless at exploitative prices, forcing everyone to participate, whether or not they want to.
On a Friday about five years ago I had yet to make plans for the weekend. I figured I’d just invite my neighbors over to watch a freshly burned copy of Serpientes a Bordo (Snakes on a Plane) “¡Estoy harto de esas putas serpientes y de este puto avión!” They had more exciting plans — and invited me along.
I followed my friends to a quixotically organized annual arts festival in Guanajuato. Young people from across Mexico cram into this quaint provincial capital for live music, theatre, and parties. We camped at a construction site, with seventy people and one port-a-potty.
On our second evening at the festival we brought two large bottles of booze into the main plaza. Though Cervantino is normally a free-for-all, the cops don’t want you to drink on the streets. So when a cop tapped me on the shoulder, I became instantly very nervous. But the officer pointed at our bottles, and shook his head. I put my palms into the air quizzically and shrugged my shoulders. The cop smiled, and decided to take only one of our bottles.
As the evening progressed we walked around the crowd meeting people. A huge drum circle formed around us. I didn’t have a drum, so I tried to start a chant. (When I’m drunk, I try to start chants.)
“¡Mor-di-da, Mor-di-da, Mor-di-da!”
I thought it’d be incongruously hilarious to incant the traditional Mexican birthday chant — WHEN IT WASN’T ANYONE’S BIRTHDAY! Typically the ‘mordida’ is used to encourage the birthday girl to take a huge bite out of her cake, often resulting in frosting smeared all over her face.
Nobody wanted to chant with me. I was disappointed. Why didn’t people think that I was funny? I thought I had a grasp of this Spanish language! Nobody responded positively to my joke. All I got was people whispering: “¡Basta ya!” *Ok, that’s enough).
A friend pulled me aside and informed me that while a ‘mordida’ chant is used to smear cake at birthday parties, it more often refers to the bribe you give to police officers. Arbitrarily chanting that in public is not a good idea, especially when you are illegally drinking in the streets.
The Economist reports that in 2010 “the public paid some 32 billion pesos” in bribes. Bribery is most common in over-populated areas like Mexico City, where there’s a high demand for public services. Crooked officials take advantage of the situation and “auction off the scarce resources they manage.”
I was leaving a party with friends in Mexico City. Four people piled into the back seat of a Jetta. After driving a few blocks a cop pulled us over. He asked the driver why there were so many people in the back seat. The driver, a lawyer, told him that we weren’t committing any crimes. The cop asked to see his official Mexican Lawyers ID. When the cop walked back to his car to talk to with his partner, another car full of our friends pulled up beside us. “Let’s go to the after party, hurry up!” they said. The lawyer looked back at the cops and said, “Fuck it.” We drove away.
The cop still had his ID, but we just sped off. Cops in Mexico City won’t chase after you for small shit like that, the driver said. They also won’t put your name into a computer, because they’re just looking for bribes. He said that if you’re going to bribe a cop, start by offering 100 pesos and work your way up. But never drop more than thirty bucks on crooked cops. Then he told me that even if a police officer pulls a gun on you, they probably won’t shoot, because bullets are really expensive in Mexico…. um, I’m not that comfortable playing Russian Roulette in any scenario.
If you are stopped by a cop for a crime that you didn’t commit follow blogger Shatter The Fog’s advice on How to Bribe a Corrupt Mexican Traffic Cop. He suggests that the best strategy is “to get more people involved.” Dishonorable officers won’t want to go through with this because “even if the charge sticks they won’t get their bribe.”
If it’s in your better interest to pay off the cop, because say you actually committed a crime, discretion is advised. Asking “Can I just bribe you” is probably not as good as asking “Is there anything I can do to speed up the process?” or “Can’t I just pay for the fine to you right now?”
After witnessing this, and hearing several stories about people paying too much for mordidas, I went down to the copy shop and laminated card stock with the rates for common bribes for wayward gringos. I used the tool of the counterfeiter to spread awareness about bribery.
While Werner Herzog was shooting Fitzcarraldo in the Peruvian Amazon, he was halted by provincial military officials: “Every petition we entered for a deed vanished at once in the labyrinthine provincial bureaucracy. Our attempts at bribery failed, too.”
He then produced a document signed by Peruvian President Belaúnde that ordered all armed forces along the Amazon to give his film crew free passage and assistance. The certificate was adorned with three large signatures and an official-looking German stamp that read: “If you want the rights to this photograph, contact the owner of the copyright.” The certificate was a fake, but it worked when bribery didn’t.
I am more sympathetic to counterfeiting than I am to bribery. Because while counterfeiting disadvantages wealthy corporations, bribery hurts poor people and the values of a democratic society at large.
Ultimately corruption takes its toll on democracy. As blogger mexicomatters puts it:
“I love this country and its people too much to contribute, even in the smallest way, to a system of impunity for the law….If you’re traveling in Mexico and a cop stops you for an alleged traffic violation, offer to accompany him to the police station to pay the ticket. You will be honoring the law and honoring the freedom of Mexicanos.”
Sometimes the financial and ethical dimensions of corruption make you not want to participate at all. You can avoid all of this by not supporting piracy, paying fines at the police station, and evading shady cops–and always have a counterfeit letter from the President of Peru on you at all times—no matter where you are.