Familia, ‘Pirateria’ and the Story of Microsoft’s ‘CSI’ Unit

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Organized criminals long ago diversified their portfolios, entering lucrative side businesses such as piracy. But groups like the Familia Michoacana seemed to have taken it to a new level, as evidenced by the recent spate of investigations concerning pirated products from Microsoft Corporation, one of the largest corporations in the world, that said the criminal group was selling knockoffs of the company’s software in thousands of places, costing that company — and by extension Mexico’s government — billions in revenue.

One estimate, quoted in the New York Times, put the worldwide cost of software piracy at $51.4 billion. A Bloomberg report estimates that, in the countries that make up the G-20, the total value of counterfeit and pirated goods may rise to $1.77 trillion by 2015.

Piracy has reached such a scale that Microsoft has created its own, sophisticated anti-piracy unit that has what the New York Times says are “CSI”-like facilities, in reference to the popular television program. Microsoft is spending over $200 million on anti-piracy mechanisms and enforcement, the paper says.

Part of this effort includes trying to push more enforcement of the laws in places like Mexico, where the problem is growing, especially as more sophisticated groups with larger criminal networks seep  into the business. Within the the countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Mexico has the third highest rate of pirated software at 60 percent, after Chile and Turkey, according to InfoWeek, a business news portal.

Quoting from a Universal newspaper story, Microsoft’s associate general counsel for anti-piracy, David Finn, wrote in a company blog that the Familia could have as many as 180,000 points of sale, and profits can reach $2.2 million a day.

The Familia’s control was evident earlier this month when, as reported in Bloomberg, Microsoft showed boxes with pirated software marked with the cartel’s logo, “FMM.” The unveiling came during the Global Congress Combatting Conunterfeiting and Piracy, an international conference on counterfeiting.

While many criminal groups begin with low-level crimes, such as car theft and contraband, before branching into higher profile activities such as drug trafficking, the Familia appears to have evolved the opposite way: It began in drug trafficking and has spread into piracy as a way to offset losses in the increasingly competitive drug trafficking market that has cost them several of their most important leaders to arrests and deaths at the hands of rivals and security forces.

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