Inside a world-class ring of diamond thieves

When the wars of the former Yugoslavia finally ended in 1999, the region was left with hundreds of battle-hardened men who had become accustomed to crime and easy money. With the fighting over, many of them turned to crime full-time. In the era of electronic banking, banks no longer carry much cash, so jewels are the softest target for thieves. The former Yugoslav criminals saw their opportunity and are now the world’s most feared diamond thieves. Interpol has dubbed them the Pink Panthers. In a GlobalPost exclusive report, four of the thieves reveal how they plan their robberies, how they dispose of the stolen diamonds — and who is winning the battle between them and police departments from Paris to Dubai.

PODGORICA, Montenegro — Each member of the gang did his or her job perfectly. The attractive young woman seduced the son of the jewelry store owner in Rome to find out where the safe was in the owner’s house. She also discovered that the owner needed builders for repairs. Some of the others secured the renovation contract and cased the house. The get-away driver spent weeks learning every one-way road and stop sign in downtown Rome. And eventually the safe-cracker, the smallest in the group, hid himself inside a false-bottomed chest that the others left on the balcony of a bedroom where the safe was located.

As luck would have it, he didn’t even have to break into the safe, which was hidden behind a painting. The jeweller’s other son left it open for 15 minutes, plenty of time for the diminutive safe-cracker to remove the diamonds and make his escape to the street, where the driver was waiting for him. Back in their rented apartment in Ostia, near the Fiumicino airport outside Rome, the gang met up and celebrated.

“That was one of the most beautiful jobs I’ve ever done,” the get-away driver said, smiling at the memory in an interview with GlobalPost at a seaside fish restaurant in the former Yugoslav republic of Montenegro late last year.

It sounds like a plot from Ocean’s Eleven. But the October 2001 robbery, described in detail by the driver — a rakish, multilingual career diamond thief — is exactly the sort of daring heist that a loosely affiliated group of 200 thieves from the former Yugoslavia has been pulling off with such frequency that Interpol has dubbed them the Pink Panthers. Since 1999, the criminals have stolen $340 million worth of jewelry in more than 160 robberies in at least 26 countries.

The Panthers have choreographed some spectacular jobs: In 2007, a group of men drove two cars through windows and into the forecourt of a mall in Dubai, racing out to rob a jewelry store of $3.4 million worth of jewels; in 2004 two men and two women raided a jewelry store in Tokyo, smashing a display cabinet and escaping into the bustling crowds with $30 million in jewels, in what was the biggest grossing robbery in Japan’s history; in 2003 two men stole £37 million in jewels from a diamond store in London. Only a fraction of those jewels have been recovered but police did find a 2.32 carat blue diamond ring hidden in a jar of face cream belonging to the girlfriend of one of the thieves, echoing a scene from the first Pink Panther movie starring Peter Sellers. A name — and something of a legend — was born.

But behind the sheen of glamour the moniker has given these thieves lies a darker history. Many Panthers were blooded during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, taking advantage of the ample opportunities for crime during the violent chaos in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Along the way they learned how to work in decisive, daring teams, and to cast aside their national and ethnic differences in search of a universal goal — getting rich quick. The wars “were fruitful ground for them to make connections,” said Dejan Durovic, the head of the Interpol office in Montenegro. “War was useful for them to build the network. After the crisis has finished, after the war has finished, they had to continue their way of working, they couldn’t do it anymore in these territories so they just transferred abroad their activities, to Europe.”

While the Panthers pose none of the threat to European stability that the wars of the 1990s did, their anarchic, transnational crime wave is an unpleasant hangover of the wars and wildly at odds with the rules-based modern society represented by the EU, an organization that all of the former Yugoslav republics one day hope to join. (Slovenia has already made it into the club.)

Montenegro, the smallest of the former Yugoslav republics, is home to a large number of Panthers, according to Interpol. Many Montenegrins are proud of their warrior heritage, particularly their defeat of the Ottoman empire in the 17th century, and their independent streak showed when a majority voted for independence from Serbia in 2006.

It’s a shockingly beautiful country, with some of the most dramatic coastline in the Adriatic, the coastal mountains rising suddenly into a breathtaking patchwork of deep river gorges, jagged peaks and turquoise Alpine lakes. As the economy transitions from state-run socialism to free-market capitalism, average Montenegrins still have to struggle with a per capita gross domestic product just slightly more than that of Lebanon and Botswana. Unless you happen to be in on the influx of foreign investment in the luxury tourism industry, it can be tough to make a good living in Montenegro.

Meeting those who have been tempted to make their money in international crime rather than through hard graft at home took GlobalPost reporters many weeks to arrange. They are cautious men who choose when and where they want to meet — usually at night, usually in a cafe or restaurant they know and usually at the last minute. Three of the criminals were interviewed in Montenegro, one in Vienna — all on condition that their identities be protected and their names changed. One of the four has since been arrested by police in a western European country and is now in custody there.

Yugoslav criminals were operating in western Europe even before the country fell apart in the early 1990s, but it wasn’t until the Kosovo war ended in 1999 — and, with it, the highly profitable smuggling business that accompanies most wars — that the men who had bonded over the years of fighting began to look in earnest outside the region for a new revenue stream.

Over the years police officers around Europe and in other parts of the world realized they were increasingly dealing with jewel thieves from the former Yugoslavia, many with connections to each other, and in 2007 Interpol set up a multi-national team devoted to catching them. The cops at headquarters in Lyon, France, named it Project Pink Panther.

The truth, however, is that the existence of a coherent Pink Panther gang is almost as fanciful as anything Inspector Clouseau ever nosed around in. Interpol officials and the criminals themselves agree that the so-called gang is a loose conglomeration of separate gangs, many of whom know each other, and some of whose members are interchangeable.

“There are several groups,” said Nikola, the pseudonym of the driver who took part in the heist in Rome in 2001. “In a group there are five or six. Over six is too much. If there’s more the share is smaller. There must be mutual confidence in each other.”

Most jobs start with a piece of gathered intelligence, the criminals explained. This can be as sophisticated as an insider passing on information about a jewelry store’s security system, or as primitive as a thief noticing that a particular store has, say, a major display case near the front door and sits on a street that allows for a fast getaway. A gang will often include a woman, who will accompany one of the male gang members into a store on a reconnaissance mission.

One criminal, a Croat who says he is now in legitimate business, recalled working with a team of Montenegrin and Serb criminals he met in Lausanne.

tray of jewels
A Dubai police photo shows stolen jewelry from a nearly $4-million heist.

“I speak French and I was able to visit various watch shops and jewelry stores, ask questions, observe and recognize the weak points of security without raising any suspicion,” said the man, who was interviewed in Vienna earlier this year. “I had a girlfriend from a wealthy Viennese family and she was a perfect cover without knowing it. Sometimes I was given money to buy her pretty expensive things like earrings or necklaces. After a month or so those guys would storm the targets and disappear.”

Often the heists are very primitive.

“Any good robbery should take up to 20 seconds,” said Zoran, a Serbian career criminal who helped supply the Bosnian Serb army with cigarettes, gasoline, alcohol and other goods during the war in Bosnia and has photographs of himself with alleged Bosnian Serb war criminals Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic.

“In case we are dealing with sophisticated security and a strong police presence we always set up decoys or activate alarms somewhere nearby to divert attention.” Zoran said he has pulled off several robberies in the Netherlands. “The first thing I do when I arrive in Holland is I get a good car, preferably a BMW 5 Series, with a hook on the rear. The hook is important because it helps when I drive in reverse into a jewelry shop.” The powerful car “is needed to speed away and not be caught by police. But a few times they had reinforced glass so when I hit the display window I bounced back. That was unpleasant.”

Zoran has a second method.

“Another way is to have someone else wait in the car and two of us walk in a shop in fancy clothes and I carry a briefcase,” he said.

Zoran led a reporter to another room in his house in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, and showed the reporter a briefcase, which Zoran then opened to reveal a large hammer with a short handle. “This hammer goes into the front window if we see that the displayed stuff is genuine and worth our effort,” he said. “If the real stuff is inside and shown at request, then we use the hammer for the desk and table with the jewelry inside.” And then they run.

Durovic, the head of Montenegro’s Interpol bureau, believes that many Europeans are unprepared for the war-nurtured nerve of the Panthers, the gumption required for smashing and grabbing during the daytime and in the heart of swanky commercial districts in cities like Monte Carlo, Geneva and Paris. “They cannot recognize that those people have the courage to commit [these crimes] and they are not ready for that,” he said.

Montenegrin Rifat Hadziahmetovic, suspected "Pink Panther" member, was arrested in Cyprus, March 31, 2009.

Two days before the interview in September with Durovic, a group of armed men had stolen a helicopter in Stockholm and raided a cash depot in a spectacular raid. Soon afterward, Serbian officials told journalists that they had warned Sweden that the heist was being planned. (Eleven men, reportedly some ethnic Serbs, have been arrested by Swedish police. The Swedish police have not released the names of the men.) Durovic said he had no information about the robbery other than what he had read in the newspapers but he was inclined to believe at least some of the perpetrators were veterans of the Balkan wars.

“That is something that nobody would expect — and that’s their advantage,” he said. “Probably some of them were with military experience.”

No matter how the robberies are conducted, with a hammer or a helicopter, there’s a level of efficiency and sophistication in the handling of the stolen goods that has police bemused.

“We don’t know how they do that because I would say probably many Pink Panther members have been arrested at least one time in their life but very rarely stolen goods are recovered,” said Emmanuel Leclaire, Interpol’s assistant director of the Drug and Criminal Organizations Directorate at headquarters in Lyon. “We don’t know what are the processes to receive these jewels and watches.”

Part of the answer sits on the muscular right wrist of Rocco, a criminal who was a friend of Arkan, the late Serbian gangster and war criminal, in the form of a glinting gold Rolex. Rocco explained that the watch, worth $33,000, was a gift from one of the Panthers in appreciation for his great work, which during an interview in the otherwise empty upstairs section in a bar in Podgorica, he explained is to “arrange purchases of the final product.”

Stolen watches go on the black market but jewels are taken from their moldings and reset, or cut to look different. “The goods are reshaped, laundered and sold into regular channels,” he said, meaning legitimate jewelry companies. The buyers pay between 18 percent and 25 percent of retail value, he said. Marbella in Spain, Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and the Belgian city of Antwerp are popular desinations for stolen jewels, according to Rocco and Zoran.

Like their crimes, the Panthers can be both crude and sophisticated. Rocco has the classic look of the mid-90s paramilitary: shaved head, multiple tattoos and a matching deep voice. But he’s also well-versed in European politics and Montenegrin history and has traveled extensively, including to the diamond mines of Sierra Leone. Nikola, the driver from the Italian job, is smoother still. He speaks fluent English and said he speaks Czech, Slovak and Polish also — and some Italian, Spanish and French. The men often pick up languages during their spells in foreign prisons but they are also diligent students, realizing that language is a crucial tool for gathering information about a target in a foreign country and escaping safely after the robbery.

Many Panthers are big spenders. Nikola, who described himself as a “medium fish,” said some of the big fish have villas in Spain and spend lavishly on cars, jewelry, gambling and prostitutes. Nikola’s splurge is travel. “When I get money I go to Brazil, to South Africa, to Kenya” on vacation, he said.

The Panthers’ success has turned them into folk heroes in the eyes of some Montenegrins, who complain that their own honest hard work hasn’t paid dividends.

“You can realize why guys from Cetinje are doing this,” said Zoran Pajovic, 39, a bar owner in the Montenegrin city that seems to produce more jewel thieves per square mile than any other in Montenegro. Pajovic’s bar was for many years a meeting point for pro-independence campaigners. Now, three years after his political dream came true, his bar is quiet and his standard of living still low. He admitted that friends in some of the gangs had offered him work.

“Of course we were tempted,” he said. But it’s a risky way to make a living. “Some were lucky and got away with it all their life; others were caught immediately.”

zoran kostic
Zoran Kostic.

Among those recently caught was former Cetinje resident Zoran Kostic, a prominent Pink Panther who was arrested in Paris in June in relation to the robbery of a jewelry store in Lausanne, Switzerland in May. Kostic, 38, escaped from prison in Montenegro a decade ago (after shooting dead one of Pajovic’s friends) and is suspected of committing many robberies in various countries. But when GlobalPost visited his family’s home in Cetinje there was no sign that any of Kostic’s wealth had benefited his loved ones. The family lives in an apartment in the basement of an elementary school, at the end of a dark, dirty corridor, its walls covered in graffiti.

A young woman who identified herself as his sister declined to comment other than to say, “We hope it turns out well [for him] but you can’t predict.”

Interpol’s success in arresting Kostic and numerous other Panthers has some of the criminals worried, even though both they and the police know that no thief stays in prison forever and that once the criminals make it to their home countries in the former Yugoslavia they cannot, according to each country’s constitution, be extradited.

Two of the men interviewed said they felt the police were nevertheless winning this latest Balkan war. Part of the problem, according to Nikola, is the unwanted glamour and mythological status the Pink Panther moniker has given to these criminals.

“When they give you a name you’re in big trouble,” he said, as he finished up a dinner of fresh sea bass at the seaside restaurant and lit a cigarette. “Because every single small policeman is trying to catch you. We lost a lot of guys because of that name. Some of our co-workers got drunk in casinos and were bragging about it, thinking they are something. It’s better to be nothing. The best criminals are those who stay out of prison.”

Montenegro-based investigative reporter Jovo Martinovic contributed to this story. Martinovic and McAllester have been interviewing former paramilitaries, soldiers and war criminals in the former Yugoslavia since the end of the war in Kosovo in 1999, which McAllester covered as a staff correspondent for Newsday. McAllester is the author of the highly acclaimed non-fiction book Beyond the Mountains of the Damned: The War Inside Kosovo. Martinovic was a reporter on the award-winning NPR documentary, Massacre at Cuska.