Did any of you happen to see the 60 Minutes segment a couple of weeks ago about the “Pink Panther” jewelry thieves? They are a very organized network of thieves that have stolen millions of dollars of diamonds and jewelry. According to 60 Minutes, the Pink Panthers are the largest, most successful gang of jewelry thieves in the world. The thieves acquired their nickname from the Peter Sellers crime comedy movies (does your dog bite?) of the same name. In one of the movies, a thief steals the so called Pink Panther jewel and hides it in a jar of face cream to elude detection. In 2003, two thieves pulled off the largest jewel heist in British history at the Graff Diamonds store. Within days, Scotland Yard had identified a Montenegrin man living in Bayswater. When they raided his London flat they found, among other things, a blue diamond ring worth $750,00 in a tub of face cream.
The Daily Mail coined the name and after that, the gang’s nickname stuck. By the way, the two thieves made off with $40 million in diamonds.
After London came Tokyo with the men entering a high end store wearing wigs and anti-pollution masks. The clerks were immobilized with pepper spray and the thieves made off with diamonds, a tiara and the Comtesse de Vendome necklace worth $30 million.
In another of their most infamous jobs, they robbed a jewelry store on THE jewelry street in Geneva, grabbing $4 million worth of diamonds. They used motorcycles as getaway vehicles down a street that was too narrow for cars.
All of the robberies from start to finish, take seconds to a couple of minutes. They are in and out, well organized and practiced. They have flawless getaway plans and are usually in different countries within hours.
In over 20 years there has only been one fatality.
According to the show, the group has conducted more than 370 highly organized heists of both jewelry and fine art, totaling more than $500 million. The thieves have operated in more than 35 countries. They have no fear of crossing country borders.
The Pink Panthers gang is allegedly made up of many different networks of teams. Many of them fought in the Serbian Special Forces during the Bosnian War, which lasted from 1992-1995. When UN sanctions prevented products from entering the former Yugoslavia, many of the soldiers also became professional smugglers.
Interpol has been able to identify 800 members of the gang. They have photos, fingerprints and DNA but since they are known for using fake passports, they are very difficult to catch.
Rather than being compared to the Mafia hierarchy, Interpol compares the organizational structure to al Qaeda. There are a series of cells that come and go, always working independently. They share methods, contacts, resources and origins, but it is to everyone’s advantage that links are thin. Different skill sets are needed depending upon the job. They have specialists in everything from safe cracking to car theft. There is no particular kingpin at the head of the ring.
The oldest Panthers have paramilitary training. They are very organized, very disciplined and ruthless. They are fearless. These are the soldiers that started the ring back in 1994-1996.
Police have quite a lot of video footage of some of the gang’s more spectacular robberies. The thieves are brilliant at their planning and execution. They do weeks of patient surveillance before making a move.
One of their most notorious heists (see the above video) was a robbery of the Graff Diamonds store in the Wafi Mall in Dubai in 2007. The gang drove two Audi S8’s straight into the mall, crashed in the door of the store, went in and robbed the store with great precision, and then drove off in the very cars they drove in with. They stole about $3.5 million in diamonds. The entire operation took 170 seconds.
The gang only drove Audis because you can’t do a robbery driving a car you don’t know. Too risky. In 2007, Audi was a make virtually unknown in the Middle East. Getaway cars have to be found and stolen just hours before a robbery. The S8 is the brand’s flagship high performing car, so rare was the model in Dubai that one of the cars had to be stolen in the neighboring emirate of Abu Dhabi and driven across the border.
The thieves reverse rammed the car so the airbag wouldn’t open on impact and so that the car was in the perfect position to drive away. They planned the timing of the heist (9pm) at the end of the rush hour, knowing that when they fled down the highway the lanes in the opposite direction – from where the police would come – would be jammed.
The Panthers love diamonds because they are relatively easy to sell or flip. They are seen as cold, hard cash. They have many “friends” or contacts all over the world. They know in advance who will buy what and for how much. The Panthers receive around 15% of the value, the courier 5%. The fence, the people who disguise the diamonds or “legalize” them receive about 30-40% of the diamond’s market value.
The fences have contacts from West Africa to Antwerp and beyond. These teams re-cut the diamonds and create new certificates of origin, usually stating that each stolen diamond was recently mined in Sierra Leone. After being ‘processed’ the diamonds are usually untraceable. The Kimberly Process Certification System was set up in an attempt to stop the blood diamond trade. In the end, the Kimberly Process has made it easier for these thieves to simply forge origin certificates and create a ‘new’ diamond.
From time to time a Panther is caught. Much like the Mafia, there is a omerta between them. They don’t talk. They pretty much know, like and respect each other. The best teams are best friends, they grew up together. They don’t talk, they do the time. It is important to remember that in every country there is a Balkan community and thus the possibility of some kind of connection.
A Panther was recently caught in Madrid, Spain. He is suspected of participating in the Dubai robbery. Borko Ilincic, 33, is facing a life sentence in the United Arab Emirates for the 2007 jewel heist. Two other members of that heist have already been caught.
Occasionally they break out of prison. Last year at least two broke out of a Swiss prison.
The ring has expanded its tastes and has been moving into fine art. In 2008, armed and masked Panthers struck a museum in Zurich, making off with a Monet, a van Gogh, a Degas and a Cezanne. It was the largest art robbery in European history. The last of the paintings was recovered in April 2012 in a dramatic raid captured on videotape. A Serbian SWAT team stormed a house to arrest some men accused of stealing the paintings. The cops took a van in for examination as well and found something hidden in the ceiling. When they pulled it out, they discovered it was Cezanne’s “Boy in the Red Vest” estimated at $113 million.
While hundreds of arrests have been made since 2007, the group continues to grow as the next generation is recruited and copycat crimes become more prevalent.