We know from examples like Megaupload that foreign criminals are getting rich operating illegal websites designed to steal and profit from other people’s hard work and creativity. We also know that many of these same criminals use malware to spread threatening computer viruses that can steal your identity and credit card information. Now, according to officials at the Department of Homeland Security, there’s evidence Mexican drug cartels are turning to piracy as well.

The existence of the counterfeit goods market along border towns is nothing new, reports the El Paso Times, following a recent raid by federal agents that led to the seizure of thousands of items:

The sale of cheap “pirate” CDs and DVDs, fake designer handbags and bootleg brand-name clothes and sneakers has been a long-standing business at flea markets and mom-and-pop shops in El Paso and Juárez.

But agents at DHS’ U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) say Mexican drug cartels are increasingly turning to the counterfeit market as part of their criminal enterprise.

“It’s become such a lucrative business that our El Paso HSI agents have information that the drug cartels are now investing in this type of crime,” said Leticia Zamarripa, a spokeswoman for ICE.

In Mexico, drug cartels are thought to have muscled into the “pirated” goods market. It is part of a pattern in which cartels have diversified beyond drug trafficking to other criminal ventures, including extortion and immigrant smuggling.

In the El Paso-Juárez area, vendors of counterfeit items, according to HSI agents, are reportedly charged a tax, or quota, that is collected by the Barrio Azteca gang. The Barrio Azteca gang is the dominant gang in the region and collects a similar tax from street-level drug dealers.

The Barrio Azteca, or the BA, is allied with the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes drug organization, better known as the Juárez drug cartel.

You read that right – some of the money from the sale of counterfeit goods is funneled straight into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. What’s more, ICE officials warn counterfeit items are “often substandard and in some cases can pose a risk to health or safety.”

Zamarripa concludes: “As consumers, we have to stop to think and consider where that money is going and who we are supporting by purchasing these items,” adding: “By supporting this type of illegal activity, we are robbing Americans of legitimate jobs.”

We couldn’t agree more.