The Pink Panthers: dealing in diamonds and danger

Are the Pink Panthers really the harmless gentlemen thieves they are made out to be? EDGAR investigates…

Peter Iantorno February 24, 2015

April 15, 2007, and just another normal day in Dubai's peaceful Wafi Mall, as shoppers casually browse the luxurious storefronts of high-end jewellers, walking almost in rhythm with the slow easy-listening background music. The day is entirely unremarkable, that is until the clock ticks over to 9.30pm, when suddenly the peace is dramatically broken, as two Audi S8s smash through the mall's glass doors, screeching across the shiny marble floor and crashing into the front of the Graff jewellery store.

In a blur of noise and broken glass, two men brandishing revolvers and pick axes hop out of the cars and burst into the jewellery shop, pointing their guns at the petrified staff. As the shop attendants drop to the floor in terror, the men swiftly and systematically use their pick axes to smash each display cabinet and, in one smooth movement, grab the valuables inside.

Before anybody knows what's happening, less than three minutes after their spectacular entrance, both men have jumped back into the cars and sped out of the mall, escaping with bagfuls of watches and jewellery worth an estimated AED 14.7 million, leaving behind them only a smattering of smashed glass, some black tyre marks and a few shocked onlookers, wondering what exactly they have just witnessed.

Dubai robbery 2007While the witnesses may have been wondering what they had seen at the time, it later became clear that the robbery was in fact the work of the infamous Pink Panthers - a gang that has amassed an estimated $500 million (AED 1.84 billion) in some 22 years since its first reported heist.

So who are the mysterious Pink Panthers? Well, unsurprisingly due to the nature of their profession - if you can call it that - they are not the most self-publicising bunch. However, what we do know is that the gang originated in the former Yugoslavia, where some ex-soldiers used the upheaval of the country in the early 1990s to seize power by taking control of local smuggling routes, which were made extremely important after the UN imposed strict sanctions against the country.

With a growing network of contacts enabling them to transport whatever they wanted - starting with low-value items such as food, fuel and alcohol, but quickly moving on to arms, drugs and diamonds - the gang began to look for ways to source a high-value, easy-to-move and hard-to-trace commodity, and diamonds where the obvious choice.

In the early 2000s, the gang was seemingly unstoppable, using its military training to commit a string of meticulously planned raids in jewellery shops around Europe, and then smuggling their bounty over soft European borders with such ease that they may as well not have been there. diamondsA common method adopted by the Panthers was to send an attractive woman on a reconnaissance mission at their target so as not to arouse any suspicion. After scouting a location, they would then report back to the gang exactly where the most highly prized items were, how many staff were working there, how many cameras there were and any other security systems in place at the shops.

And the role of the women didn't end there. As border security tightened up, female members of the gang would also be used to carry the diamonds between countries undetected, in a rather intimate area that was highly unlikely to be searched...

The gang had become so notorious and was thought to have committed so many heists that the media began looking for a catchy nickname to refer to them as when reporting on their robberies. And they didn't have to wait long, as the gang's 2003 heist at London's Graff jewellers ended up offering journalists the perfect pun.

After £23 million (AED 130 million) worth of gems were snatched in the robbery, the subsequent police investigation led the authorities to Serbain Milan Jovetic's apartment. While searching the property, police found a blue diamond worth £500,000 in a tub of face cream - exactly mirroring the plot in Peter Sellers's 1975 Inspector Clouseau film The Return of the Pink Panther. And so, the famous nickname was born. Peter Sellers The Pink Panther While the group was highly trained, extremely organised and very rarely made mistakes, with a rapidly expanding global team, they were always going to be liable to slip up at some point, and a small yet important error came shortly after the famous Dubai heist of 2007.

Almost every part of the robbery was planned and executed to perfection: the two Audis were stolen without detection, the first car smashed into the mall in reverse so as not to set off the airbags, and the heist was even timed so the traffic would be busy on one side of Sheikh Zayed Road and not on the other, allowing a quick getaway but hindering the chances of a fast response from the nearest police station.

However, where the thieves fell down was in the disposing of the cars. The location - an abandoned and unlit bit of land in the Zabeel area - was fine, but when they burned the cars, the robbers neglected to leave a window open, meaning that not enough oxygen could get into the cars for the flames to completely engulf them. This allowed the Dubai police to collect a decent amount of DNA evidence from the scene, which was then shared with worldwide police organisation Interpol, and has since led to several high-ranking members of the gang being identified and linked to other heists in Japan, the US and Europe.

This may have been something of a coup for police, but even once they have caught and imprisoned a member of the Pink Panthers, that is not the end of the story. In 2013, leading gang member Milan Poparic was broken out of a Swiss prison when a van rammed open a prison gate and armed men sprayed machine gun fire towards guards as Poparic made a break for freedom.

Although no-one was hurt, it's this kind of act that jars with the notion that the Pink Panthers are some kind of lovable Robin Hood-esque figures, who steal from the rich to feed the poor - a narrative they like to promote for themselves, yet there has been little to no evidence to suggest any of their crimes have been the slightest bit altruistic.

While the blockbuster-worthy methods of their robberies are undoubtedly impressive and you can't help but admire their audacity, the fact remains that when it comes down to it, they are still the bad guys. No matter what we think of the world's super-rich and how they decide to spend their vast wealth, it doesn't matter who you are stealing from: putting people's lives in danger all in the name of making money you were never entitled to in the first place will never be justified.