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Inside a world-class ring of diamond thieves

Exclusive: Matt McAllester talks with "Pink Panthers" about spectacular heists estimated at $350 million.

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.