The Pink Panthers strike again. No, this isn’t a post about the 1963 film classic, The Pink Panther. I’m referring to a mysterious and secretive organization of jewelry thieves, with a staff of anywhere between 60 and 500 people, that have been terrorizing high-profile jewelers since the early 1990s.
According to a report by NPR’s Christopher Worth, the group has stolen about half a billion dollars over roughly 500 robberies.
Here are the top 10 facts you need to know about The Pink Panthers.
1. Interpol Coined Their Name
For years, Interpol did not know what to call the sneaky international crime ring. Finally, in 2003, British police arrested a member of the syndicate after a railed robbery, where he tried to hide a stolen diamond ring in a jar of face cream, which is exactly what happens in the film 1963 comedy, The Pink Panther. From that point on, the European Union crime agency began to call the organization The Pink Panthers.
2. The Panthers Emerged From a War-Torn Region
The members of The Pink Panthers that we know about are largely from Serbia and Montenegro, both states that were deeply involved in the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s. When the world began to try to stabilize the region, they applied heavy sanctions on the involved states. According to Havana Marking, a filmmaker responsible for the documentary SMASH & GRAB: The Story of the Pink Panthers, this was detrimental for the people living there.
“As the Western world tried to sort of get stability back … one of the first things they did was to apply massive sanctions,” Marking explained to NPR. “And it meant that nobody could legally trade. … That led to a kind of black market that people saw sort of as a free-for-all. People almost had to become criminals to survive. And the Pink Panthers were sort of young men at the time who decided that diamonds … was going to be their particular niche of crime.”
3. Many Members Appear to Have Military Backgrounds
The Pink Panthers are known to be precise, brutal, and effective in their activities. This has lead authorities to believe that many of the group’s members have backgrounds in the military. In facts, their meticulous, military-style planning is the key to their success, according to The Mirror. Some are even said to be ex-members of Arkan’s Tigers, a paramilitary group from Serbia that has been blamed for multiple massacres in Bosnia. The Daily Mail has reported that the international crime network are a loosely affiliated with up to 200 thieves, many of them ex-soldiers from the former Yugoslavia, who became war-hardened in the Balkan wars.
This attention to detail, according to the Atlanic Wire, has netted them roughly $396 million worth of jewels in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North America since 1999.
4. Average Pink Panther Robbery Takes Up To 60 seconds
The group’s military background and ability to collect intelligence has made their process very smooth and effective. In 2007, the group raided a shop in Tokyo’s high-end shopping district, Ginza. They sprayed three salespeople with tear gar, smashed a couple displays, grabbed some gems, necklaces, and a $1.5 million diamond tiara. According to the Daily Mail, security footage of the event pictured the robbers smoothly and calmly walking into the store, dressed in high-end, slim-fitting suits. After they grabbed the merchandise, they made their getaway on bicycles in the heavy rush hour traffic. The whole operation took 36 second.
“When you’re working on these guys, you understand that they’ve worked a lot to find the jewelry and to know how to flee from the crime scene,” said French Detective Hervé Conan to NPR.
5. The Pink Panthers Are Also Known for Prison Escapes
The Pink Panther crime network is not just known for stealing prized jewels. They also make headlines for their daring prison escapes. In fact, the latest jailbreak dates back as recently as July 26 in Switzerland.
According to an CBS report, two vehicles rammed the front gate of Vaud’s (a Swiss province) Orbe prison, clearing the barbed wire and fence obstacles. They then dawned AK-47s and opened fire on the the prison guards, providing cover fire for inmates Milan Poparic, 34, and Adrian Albrecht, 52. Poparic is a known member of the Pink Panthers.
According to a police press conference, the prison guards were unarmed, and therefore unable to fight back. Although they were backed up by Swiss private security firm Protectas, they were online equipped with handguns, and we no match for the firepower the Panthers were using.
The attacks set one of the vehicles on fire and escaped with the inmates in the other.
“This is an invasion, rather than an escape, orchestrated by a heavily armed organized gang,” said Beatrice Metraux, head of Vaud’s interior department, who holds responsibility for the province’s prisons.
The attack was so shocking that one member of the prison staff was getting psychological counseling. The guards could not even say which direction the vehicle fled.
6. The Pink Panthers Are Not a Typical Crime Organization
When you think of a crime syndicate, people generally picture a pyramid structure, with one benevolent, untouchable person at the top, supported by pawns, sergeants and enforcers. As Havana Marking’s documentary, SMASH & GRAB: The Story of the Pink Panthers shows, the organization is far from typical, and is seemingly more structured like a terrorist network.
“We are a network of teams working together,” one of the Pink Panthers in the film explains. “Everybody has their specific job to do. So we all depend on each other.”
So the network is built up of multiple cells across the world, each specializing in a specific field, and is in place to support the other cells in anything from obtaining fake identification documents to procurement of weapons and intelligence gathering material.
7. The Pink Panthers Are Sometimes Compared to Robin Hood
The Pink Panthers bring a lot of their money back to their home countries, where they are reportedly revered and even seen as Robin Hood-type figures. Although they claim to steal from the rich and give to the poor, there is little public evidence of them giving back to their communities.
8. The Pink Panthers Are Very Good At Selling And Distributing The Stolen Goods
According to Havana Marking, director of the SMASH & GRAB: The Story of the Pink Panthers documentary, the organization’s real strength is their unique ability to quickly and easily sell the stolen merchandise.
“They can get it to the buyer,” she explained to NPR. “They can get it to the person who’s going to forge the diamond certificate, and then within 24 hours they can have sold these diamonds.”
Smash & Grab presents the idea that many of those illicit diamonds and jewels end up in the United States.
The stolen goods are rarely recovered. According to the Daily Mail, the necklaces, tiaras, and bracelets are broken down to their pieces. The metal settings are melted down and the individual stones are sold by themselves openly on the international market. This is the secret to the crime networks laundering practices.
9. Pink Panthers May Be Over Soon
Pink Panthers organization is largely based out of the member’s home countries of war-torn Serbia and Montenegro. Those two countries have been attempting to “ascend” into the European Union since their official application in December 22, 2009. This process has made these states more likely to comply with Interpol and EU-based extradition requests.
Extradition between the EU and Serbia has been traditionally shaky, but in 2012, Switzerland agreed to extradite Shemsi Nuhiu, a former member of Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), who had been accused of participating in wars crimes committed by the KLA against Serbian and Albanian civilians in the Gnjilane area of Eastern Kosovo in 1999.
What this means is that wanted members of the Pink Panthers are in danger of losing their safe heavens. Serbia’s attempt to enter the EU will create a bigger chance for them to be arrested and extradited through Interpol.
10. A Pink Panther Documentary Comes Out Tomorrow
Filmmaker Havana Marking directed the Pink Panther documentary, titled SMASH & GRAB: The Story of the Pink Panthers. The film interviews interviewing 5 members of the mysterious organization and sheds light on the inner workings of the organization. The film comes out July 31, 2013. Check out the trailer above.