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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 August 2006, 12:05 GMT 13:05 UK
Piracy on the streets of Peru
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Lima

Counterfeiting is a problem in many parts of the world, but in the Peruvian capital, Lima, the black market has become a normal part of everyday life.

I had been told about the black market in Lima before I arrived, but it still somehow caught me by surprise.

A DVD of Cars 2 is already being sold on the black market in Lima
I was on the edge of Lima's bustling Chinatown, and remembered that a friend had asked if I could pick up a copy of the Disney/Pixar production of Cars for her son.

"Have you got Cars?" I asked.

Cars 2 was thrust in my face.

"But that can't be," I pleaded. "It's not been made yet. Cars 1 is only being released in the cinema today."

"Not been released," said the vendor knowingly. "But it's been made."

And he tapped the box with his forefinger, before imploring me to follow him into a warren of market stalls covered with corrugated plastic sheets and each selling a huge array of DVDs - mostly recent Hollywood releases.

Those most prominently displayed were for the kids. Although if you looked deeper into the gloom, there was the usual array of sordid porn flicks.

Hard to resist

In the corner of this illegal black market den sat two uniformed security guards.

Map of Peru

Each stall had a television set inserted among the boxes to show the customers that they were buying quality illegal DVDs.

I was given a showing - a short film before the main presentation telling me that I would not steal a car, I would not rob someone's house so I should not buy a pirate DVD, since that too was theft.

The irony I think was lost on the vendors. The images were a bit fuzzy around the edges and the sound a little distorted, but it was certainly watchable.

I know I should not have done it, but I did.

At three soles ($1) a time, who could resist buying?

The US-based International Intellectual Property Alliance, which fights to stop piracy worldwide, estimates that about half of all films sold in Peru are pirate copies.

Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean
Blockbusters such as Pirates of the Caribbean are being sold illegally
The legal music market has collapsed, unable to compete with 98% of all music being sold on the black market.

Books are another problem.

As I walked through Lima's Chinatown, I had to run the gauntlet of enthusiastic vendors offering me the latest works by Peru's best known author, Mario Vargas Llosa.

Only something was not quite right. "Mario Vargas Llos" it said on the cover. I have never heard of him.

There is a story circulating in Peru, which could well be true, that another Peruvian writer, the popular Jaime Bayly, was waiting at traffic lights when black marketeers offered him a pirate copy of one of his own books.

Recognising the author from the photo on the back cover, the vendor, without even pausing to blush, offered him a discount.

Thriving trade

The pirated goods trade in Peru is estimated to be worth more than $2bn a year. And it is not limited to just books, DVDs and music.

There is an illegal market in alpacas, the animals sold to wool producers abroad for up to $50,000 each (26,000).

Even alpacas, a type of llama, are sold on the black market

There is also a thriving trade in alcohol, cigarettes, computer software, toys and brand-name clothes.

More than half of Peru's economy is made up of unregulated businesses that do not pay tax. More than half the 28 million population lives below the poverty line and simply cannot afford the genuine goods.

A compact disc in the shops can cost $16 (8.45) - and a pirated copy, a fraction of that price.

The International Intellectual Property Alliance has urged the Peruvian authorities to take action. It says the government should conduct regular raids on the black market centres, many of which operate quite openly just a block away from Lima's police stations and courthouses, and impose tougher sentences on the culprits.

It did, however, point out in one report that 150 police officers armed with tear gas and riot control equipment who raided one well-known pirate market in Lima were simply fought off by the well-organised black marketeers.

Corruption rife

There is no doubt that the government would like to do more. It loses millions of dollars in unpaid taxes each year, and foreigners are not investing.

The Anglo-Dutch oil giant Royal Dutch Shell sold its petrol stations in Peru, saying fuel smuggling from Ecuador was undercutting its operations.

Those who stay have to invest in measures that make counterfeiting more difficult.

Local business groups have demanded tougher action against the illegal markets.

But politicians say they have become an intrinsic part of Peruvian society, and closing them down could cause social unrest.

Also, millions of dollars of contraband enter Peru every year across its porous borders with Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador.

Corruption is rife among underpaid and poorly equipped officials at all the frontiers.

But perhaps the biggest hindrance to solving the problem is that it has just become too widespread, so much a part of normal life that I bought my copy of Cars and totally forgot that I was doing something wrong.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 12 August, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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