It will be a while before we get the full story about yesterday’s diamond heist at Brussels Airport. So far, it sounds as though eight thieves, dressed in police uniforms and carrying machine guns, drove two cars, fitted with flashing police lights, onto the tarmac and stole the diamonds directly from the cargo hold of a jet. Most reports have said that the diamonds are worth around fifty million dollars (although one source cited by the Wall Street Journal has put their value as high as three hundred and fifty million). Meanwhile, Anja Bijens, a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office in Brussels, said what officials always say in heist movies: “This was not a random robbery. It was well-prepared—these were professionals.”
What exactly does it mean to be a “professional” diamond thief? That was the subject of David Samuels’s 2010 article, “The Pink Panthers.” The Panthers are a gang of jewelry thieves, based mainly in Eastern Europe, but with a global reach. Here’s a sample of their handiwork:
In March, 2004, Panthers targeted a jewelry store in Tokyo. Two Serbs, wearing wigs, entered the store and immobilized a clerk with pepper spray. They made off with a necklace containing a hundred-and-twenty-five carat diamond. That same year, in Paris, Panthers exploited a visit to Chopard by the wife of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and stole fourteen million dollars’ worth of jewels from an unguarded display case. In 2005, a Panther team, dressed in flower-print shirts, raided Julian, a jewelry store in Saint-Tropez. The heist, which took place in broad daylight, lasted just minutes. The thieves ran out of the store and down to the harbor, where they escaped in a waiting speedboat.All told, the Panthers have performed hundreds of robberies all over the world. The gang’s cinematic name is an invention of the press: the police, after raiding one thief’s apartment, found a blue-diamond ring, worth seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars, hidden inside a jar of face cream; a similar hiding place was used in one of the Peter Sellars films.
What sort of person becomes a Pink Panther? To find out, Samuels travels to Serbia and Montenegro, where many of the gang’s members grew up. In Serbia, the corruption, violence, and economic privation of the nineteen-nineties created a climate perfect for organized crime. (“Once the Serbian state had transformed itself into a criminal enterprise,” Samuels writes, “many Serbs turned themselves, willingly or reluctantly, into criminals.”) Samuels travels to the Serbian city of Nis, which has its own “faction” of Panther operatives.
The highway leading into town was empty, and lined with stores selling motorbikes and diet supplements. The city felt far removed from Belgrade, with its Austro-Hungarian façades and well-ordered criminality. Nis was wilder, and had more of an ethnic mix: Albanians, Macedonians, Gypsies. The city’s most famous landmark is the Skull Tower, which was built by the Turks, in 1809, out of quicklime, sand, and nine hundred and fifty-two skulls of Serbian fighters. On the uneven sidewalks, girls in heavy makeup tottered along in high heels, their loutish boyfriends following closely behind.… Groups of young men drank beer in the street. One of them, a Serb, had a T-shirt emblazoned with a brace of pistols and the word “Wanted,” in gaudy silver lettering. A brand-new Audi was parked nearby.Samuels sits down with the mayor, Milos Simonovic, who says that Nis has been “a good place to have this merger between authorities and criminals.” “Many younger citizens of Nis,” Samuels explains, “having watched their parents lose their jobs, and growing up in an atmosphere of wholesale corruption, have embraced the idea of going to Western Europe and becoming thieves.” When they return home, ready to spend, the police are happy to turn a blind eye to their faraway crimes. In Montenegro, meanwhile, “hospitality to organized crime is so remarkable as to merit comparison to the legendary pirates’ paradise of Tortuga.” In the Montenegrin town of Cetinje, the mayor tells Samuels about a local song about the thieves and bandits who operate in Western Europe. It goes, “We don’t steal from Montenegro, we steal for Montenegro.”
Samuels spends much of the piece trying to meet with someone who is relatively high-up in the Panther organization. Finally, in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica, Samuels meets with a Panther who goes by the name “Novak.” (Samuels is instructed, via a cell-phone call, to wait by the side of a mountain road; wear loose-fitting, easily-searchable clothing, a voice tells him, and leave your phone and tape recorder at home.) The Panthers, Novak explains, are loosely organized: they get “orders from Belgrade,” Samuels discovers, which are the product of “a centralized system for picking targets and assigning crews to jobs.” Samuels asks Novak about how he became a Panther. “We all come from normal families,” Novak says. “Our parents are normal people. They are not in this kind of life.”
The thieves in his group had gone to Italy together and saw how people lived there: “Some of us went insane and tried to have everything at once.” The greedy ones wound up with long prison terms or worse, he said. Others spent two or three years in Italian jails. He said that the gang began stealing during the era of Western sanctions; some of its members had connections to the Serbian security services, which provided protection.In the early days, Novak says, the group got tips from a male model, who had grown up in the Balkans and was living in Antwerp. Later, they developed their own intelligence network: “We have our bird-watchers,” he says. “We have guys whose job it is to travel around and collect tips.” The gang has included a computer whiz who sifts through registries for planes and boats, looking for likely targets. (Russian expats living in Western Europe are particularly attractive; they’re probably in trouble at home, he says, and will be reluctant to go to the police.) A technician, Samuels learns, has worked for the team, creating “devices for bypassing alarm systems”; the man’s father, Novak boasts, “is one of the most famous engineers in Serbia!” After they’re stolen, the diamonds are taken elsewhere in Europe on speedboats: “You can charter one for two Rolex,” he says. Eventually, the stolen diamonds reënter the regular diamond market as though they were new.
We don’t know, of course, who stole the diamonds at the airport, or where those diamonds are going. But we can guess about what the thieves were like—“desperate and inventive men,” Samuels calls them, who are thirsty for an anonymous prosperity. At the end of their meeting, when Novak says goodbye, he invites Samuels to visit again. “He would show me some ‘white glass,’ ” Samuels writes, “and perhaps a Cézanne.”
Subscribers can read the “The Pink Panthers” online, in The New Yorker’s archive.
Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson.