With jobs ranging from Tokyo to London, Geneva to Singapore, the Pink Panthers’ robberies have become something of a legend. They pull off jobs with precision and style, dressing as golfers for one hit and Hawaiian tourists for another. They have escaped by speedboats, fast cars, and motorcycles, and take full advantage of the European Union’s soft borders.
The Pink Panthers know that as long as they get back home to their Balkan countries, they will be protected by their corrupt officials. While these thieves seem to be living the high life, the life of a criminal has its price. For the first time, Pink Panthers give us a look into what it’s like to be one of the world’s most notorious diamond thieves.
One of their most notorious robberies was in 2007 at the exclusive Wafi mall in Dubai. It was just before 10 p.m., and everyone at the mall was getting ready to close up for the night when, suddenly, two Audi S8s came smashing through the glass doors of the mall. No one knew what was going on.
The first car—black with silver wheels—crashed through in reverse, while the second—white with a woman driver—came speeding in head-on. The black car stopped for a brief second, and a man in a black bodysuit and a ski mask jumped out before the driver hit the gas again. Tires screeched as the driver then reversed into the door of the Graff jewelry store.
The man in all black began to run into the store, where he was joined by another accomplice. The robbers came prepared. They had guns in one hand, pickaxes in another, and large bags strapped to their bodies. Employees made a run for it as the two men calmly and systematically smashed the display cases.
You can tell that this was not their first rodeo. After a few seconds, the getaway drivers began to honk, signaling that it was time to wrap things up. The security footage may look like something out of a Hollywood movie, but for the Pink Panthers, it was just a typical night’s work. It’s robberies like these that make this collective one of the most notorious crime groups in the world.
Since the early ‘90s, the Pink Panthers, which is estimated to be anywhere between 150 to 800 men (and a handful of women), has hit glamorous targets in some of the world’s swankiest cities. Their style: smash and grab. A stunning $31 million diamond necklace with a 1,225-carat center stone snatched from a Tokyo Jeweler? They did that in less than a minute.
The theft of $136 million gems jacked from a hotel in Cannes by a single thief in broad daylight? The Pink Panthers are suspects in that too. Since 1999, the collective has pulled off over 380 heists across 35 counties, stealing an estimated $372 million that are rarely, if ever, found.
So what’s their secret? Their calculated planning and superb intelligence are the cornerstones of both their success and evasion. They’re multilingual. They bounce back quickly. They go for disguises that go against the stereotypically sleek wardrobe of an international crime ring.
During their heists, they are usually clad in low-key getups, like touristy Hawaiian shirts or police and construction worker uniforms. Their operation is quick and swift, and their attention to detail is impeccable. Once, they slathered a bench with a fresh coat of paint so no potential witnesses would sit on it. The Pink Panthers make sure to do their homework before any heist. When they don’t, that’s when accidents happen.
The robbery in Dubai was impressive because not only did they steal $3.4 million in jewels, but it only took them 170 seconds from start to finish. It’s important to note that the Pink Panthers only drive Audis. Why?
You can’t rob a store of millions of dollars’ worth of jewels in a car you don’t know—it’s too risky. But in 2007, Audi was completely unknown in the Middle East, which complicated their mission. Getaway cars have to be found and stolen in the hours before a robbery. The Pink Panthers found two S8s in the neighboring emirate of Abu Dhabi and drove them across the border.
The robbers rammed the mall’s glass doors in reverse so the airbag wouldn’t open on impact, and the car would be in the perfect position to drive away. The time of the heist was also meticulously planned. The Pink Panthers knew that between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. was the end of rush hour in Dubai.
After the heist, they drove to an abandoned, unlit patch of land—snuggled between two mansions and just a few minutes’ drive from the royal palace—and set the two Audis cars on fire. Now in an unknown third car, the thieves drove away into the night undetected.
“The problem is that they’ve become legendary because they are so good in their planning and execution of robberies,” the secretary-general of Interpol, Ron Noble, told 60 Minutes. While Interpol has been able to identify 800 members of the gang, they are known for using fake passports, making the diamond thieves even harder to catch.
The Pink Panthers also appear to be leaderless. “They’ve got networks, and depending upon the robbery, there’s someone who organizes a particular robbery, but there’s no kingpin,” Noble continued. “There’s no Al Capone or John Gotti at the top of the organized crime groups like classic or traditional organized crime.”
So, who are the Pink Panthers? Film producer and director Havana Marking has been asking herself that question ever since she first arrived in Belgrade, Serbia, in 2010. Marking was interested in shooting a documentary about the crime group and was determined to track them down.
She had a contact on the inside who arranged various interviews with Pink Panther members. Alone and without a mobile phone, Marking waited at a deserted war memorial on the outskirts of the capital city of Podgorica. It was the perfect spot for a meeting: discreet, private, and hidden by trees.
But as Marking waited, she also realized that this was also the perfect spot for a murder. As soon as her heart began to pound, an old, beaten up blue car pulled up next to her. “Please excuse my car,” Novak said in perfect English. “We like to travel quietly down here.”
He was a tall man in his mid-50s, wearing white pants, a pink polo t-shirt, and a gold tooth. Marking got into his car, and the two headed to a local bar. As they began to drive, Novak explained that he was an alarm and electrics specialist for the group.
Novak also shared that he had been looking forward to meeting Marking. He had been a local “fixer” for international newspapers during the wars in the ‘90s. He would smuggle reporters into Serbia, get them fake identification, and help research their stories.
This was the perfect training for his current work, which also included strategic thinking, high stakes, adrenalin, and cash. And according to Novak, both his previous and current jobs require a high moral ground. There are “no victims to what we do,” Novak went on to explain. “We scare people, but we do not hurt them. We only take expensive things from rich people.”
This is the mythology that the gang tries to promote, and, to be honest, Novak has a point. Despite the fact that the Pink Panthers terrify the living hell out of shop employees until 2012, no one was seriously injured in a robbery.
Marking’s meeting with Novak earned her the trust of the gang, and they agreed to more interviews. A few weeks later, she met with a guy named Mike. By now, it’s mid-summer, and Mike arrives wearing navy shorts and boat shoes. Apart from the scars on his hands, he looks like a high-class businessman from Cannes.
“I don’t have a badge that says Pink Panther on it,” Mike says with a smile. “It’s nothing to do with us, this name. But I do like those films.” It was actually The Daily Mail that named the collective after the famous film in 2003. Two thieves pulled off the biggest heist in British history at the Graff jewelry store.
This record was later broken by the Great Hatton Garden heist of 2015. However, the robbers weren’t as clever as they thought they were. Within days, police had already identified the men and raided their London apartment, where they found a $750,000 ring in a tub of face cream, just like in the movie.
Mike works as a safe-cracker for the Pink Panthers. He learned to crack safes as a teenager after apprenticing for a Kosovan criminal in Italy. “Mechanical, numerical, digital ones – I can crack them all,” he says. Digital safes are the easiest because you know everything after dusting for prints, while numerical safes are the hardest.
These safes require a perfect hearing and a great memory. While this sounds like something out of a spy movie, Mike says that he is very paranoid, which is “a hazard of the job.” He pops a Valium like it’s Advil.
Our concept of the mafia comes from what we know about Italian families. There is a strict hierarchy, kingpin, initiation ceremonies, and lots of violence and murder. The Pink Panthers, however, couldn’t be more different. “We are a network of teams working together,” Mike tells me. “As soon as I got involved, I became part of the network.”
These cells come and go overnight and work independently of each other. While they share methods, origins, and contacts, the links to each cell are very thin. This works to their advantage: Catching one cell cannot bring down the entire organization.
However, there is an inner circle of those who have been in the business of jewelry heists for a long time. These men call each other “family,” but according to Mike, they don’t know anything about one another or who their bosses or associates are.
The inner circle, the ones who have been with the Pink Panthers for years, are usually the ones who get the bigger jobs. “You don’t know where you stand in the hierarchy because you never meet the ‘boss.’ There is no ‘Big Boss,’” Mike tells Marking. “Everyone has their specific job to do, so we all depend on each other.”
When you visit the Balkan Peninsula, the air is heavy. Many people are either furious, bitter, or heartbroken by the string of horrific wars. As of 2010, buildings in Serbia were still bombed out from the war that ended less than a decade before.
Factories lay crumbling as those stricken by poverty fondly remember the golden days of Yugoslavia before the war began in 1991. The only people who aren’t angry are those who escaped or made money during that period of time. As for the Pink Panthers? They did both. Mike is a classic example.
The safe-cracker was a teenager under former Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito. Mike lived in a Communist dream. He was enrolled at a great school where he was an excellent athlete; there was enough food on the table, and, most important, he was proud of his nation.
But after Tito’s death in 1980, the country began to crumble. Racism began to run rampant, and soon, Mike didn’t feel safe in the country he called home. “I was ethnically Albanian, but living in Serbia,” Mike explains. “The hatred became visible. Just pure hatred. Everything was cracking open.”
As Yugoslavia collapsed, the future of the country became clear: conflict, militaries, and total mayhem. But it wasn’t until the UN sanctions against Yugoslavia in ’92 that the Pink Panthers were formed. Entire industries collapsed under the sanctions, creating a generation of young men and women either willing or forced to take part in criminal activities.
Once people are forced to smuggle soap and food to make life possible, what’s to stop them from smuggling guns and drugs to make some extra cash? Smuggling routes formed across lakes and through the mountains, and after a few years, guns and drugs were joined by diamonds.
Marking says that she asked people in the region what they thought of the Pink Panthers. “While almost everyone acknowledged that stealing was wrong,” the director wrote in 2013, “the statement was usually followed by a glint in the eye and a sentiment along the lines of: ‘You have to admit they are good at it.’”
One man even became very passionate when she asked what he thought about the gang. “‘If I was the government, I would encourage the Panthers to go and hit all the foreign jewelers, under one condition,’” the man yells, “‘that they bring the booty home!’”
Although the Pink Panthers are mostly made up of men, there are a handful of women that work for the thieves. These women, however, are hardly mentioned in the robbery reports. According to Marking, Interpol officers believe that these women are just eye candy.
They also believe women don’t have any importance. Mike disagrees. He says that the women in the Pink Panthers have to be exceptional, especially since they have leading roles in each gang. “She has to be intelligent. She has to be beautiful. And she has to love money very much,” Mike says with a smile.
Mike then introduces Marking to his friend and previous associate, Lela. Lela is in her mid-40s, beautiful, and dressed all in black. According to Mike’s associate, not everyone can do this job. “You must be born to do it,” Lela tells Marking.
“The guys do the majority of the job, but they need a woman on their team. Without a woman, nothing could be done.” When she worked with the Pink Panthers, Lela’s job was to scout out the jewelry shops before a job. First, she would pretend to be a customer while examining everything she could.
Lela would look at the number of exits, where security cameras were positioned, how many people worked a shift, and most important, where the crown jewels were held. Immediately after leaving the shop, Lela would then meet with an artist.
The artist would then draw out the entire store down to the last inch. “If I made a mistake, they would be doomed,” she told Marking. The store surveillance could take months, which also cost the Pink Panthers a lot of money. “She had to be dressed in the most expensive clothes and elegant jewelry,” Mike adds.
The surveillance also required that she change her identity multiple times. Hairdressers would come to her house to die her hair from blonde, to brown, to red. While this sounds like a glamorous life, Lela says that she hated it. “I felt like I would lose my identity,” she told Marking in 2010.
I was “like a doll who was experimented on.” But it wasn’t just the changes in identity that were hard for Lela. Unable to tell her friends and family about her job, she had no one to confide in. The pressure became too much, and she eventually had a nervous breakdown and left the gang.
Once Mike and his team were finished stealing diamonds, their job was done. Carrying and selling the diamonds is way too risky. To avoid getting caught, the Pink Panthers would immediately pass them to a prearranged contact, who would then smuggle them across borders to buyers, who are usually in Antwerp, Belgium.
The Pink Panthers receive 15 percent of the diamond’s value, and the prearranged contact receives five percent. And then there’s the guy who disguises the stolen diamonds. Most diamonds are laser marked. However, “the mark can be polished off by someone who knows what they’re doing,” diamond trader Neil Duttson said in 2016.
After polishing off the diamond’s markings, the diamond is then resold back onto the market. According to Duttson, once a stolen diamond is in a professional thief’s hands, it would be “horrendously difficult” for the police to recover it.
The man that Mike uses to sell the stolen goods is a small Bosnian Serb named Mr. Green. According to Marking, Mr. Green has “none of the swagger of the previous crooks I have met.” He is also fed up with all the attention and glory that people give the Pink Panthers.
“They just do the street work,” Mr. Green tells the film director. “Without people like me, they’d be nothing.” Before he was a diamond reseller, Mr. Green was a peasant woodcutter who later joined the JSO, an elite special forces unit in Serbia. The militia was feared across the nation.
“I wasn’t on the frontline,” he says, “I was more in the background.” But this doesn’t mean that he was a paper-pushing soldier. He was responsible for, as he calls it, the “liquidations of terrorists.” In other words, Mr. Green has a murderous past. “He is the most frightening man I have met,” Marking wrote in 2013.
Everyone who was in the Serbian special forces has business contacts, which stretch from West Africa to Belgium, where Mr. Green has a diamond business. There, his team recuts the stolen diamonds and then forges documents that say the diamond was recently mined in Sierra Leone.
At this point, the diamond is untraceable. And while the Kimberley Process Certification System was set up to put an end to the blood diamond trade, it actually made it easier for diamond resellers to sell stolen diamonds. They simply forge those certificates and create a “new” diamond.
So, where do these diamonds go? The stolen diamonds with high value usually make their way back to the legal trade. The smaller ones, on the other hand, have become the go-to currency of the global black market. “You can have a pocketful of diamonds and buy a boatful of cocaine,” Mr. Green explains.
Now that payments over a certain amount have to be traced electronically, criminals use diamonds, which are controlled by no one. And while Mr. Green is irritated that the Pink Panthers get all of the press, they are the ones on the frontlines, leaving Mr. Green and his team untouched.
The Pink Panther’s crime spree of hit and run robberies took off in 2000, and, for a while, they were untouchable. Their countries’ own corruption and the soft borders of Europe made it nearly impossible for police to get their hands on them.
It was only when different European police forces (from Monaco, Switzerland, and France) joined forces that the Pink Panthers were first caught. Then, in 2007, Interpol created the Pink Panther Working Group, and for the first time, global police were able to share information about their investigations. The spectacular Dubai robbery that year was one of their first successful cases.
The Dubai heist would have been perfect, but the thieves made one mistake. When they burned the two Audi S8s, someone forgot to open a window. No open windows means no oxygen inside the car—which means that the fire didn’t rage as it should have.
The police in Dubai managed to retrieve ample amounts of DNA evidence, and with the help of Interpol, they were able to identify the jewelry thieves. Interpol named two men in connection with the heist: Dusko Poznan from Bosnia and Milan Ljepoja from Montenegro. Both were also wanted for heists in Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
In 2008, both men were caught. After an unrelated car crash in Monaco, Poznan was sent to the hospital, where Interpol officers were waiting for him. As for Ljepoja, he was caught after a dramatic police chase between the borders of France and Switzerland.
The woman who drove the car, however, is still at large. The unusual level of cooperation between forces has had an impact on the Pink Panthers. From 2007 and 2013, 189 criminals were arrested, and with Montenegro and Serbia in the process of joining the EU, their home countries are no longer safe.
“It’s much more dangerous. The police know all the tricks,” Mike said in 2010. “We live much quieter lives now.” Lela and Mike are both retired, and Novak, the alarm and electrics specialist, was arrested a few months after speaking with Marking.
But as the more experienced thieves have learned to cut their losses and live a more simple, quiet life, police are working on identifying the new generation of Pink Panthers who have taken over. But these new thieves are of a different breed. They have none of the care or precision that the older Panthers had.
Looking at surveillance footage from more recent robberies, you can see that the thieves enter the building with much more violence. They also don’t always have bags, drop things, or forget their guns on tables before making a run for it.
“It is then that accidents happen,” explains detective Jan Glassey from the Swiss Police Intelligence. “That is much more worrying for us.” And in 2012, the Pink Panthers had their first shooting during a police chase in Greece. Two men and a woman were in the middle of surveilling a jewelry store when people started getting suspicious.
What gave them away? Their wigs didn’t fit right. When police went to question them, the trio fled the scene, shooting and injuring a police officer in the process. All three were later caught. However, the woman, who later turned out to be former national basketball player Olivera Vasic Cirkovic,
fled from jail and escaped on foot to her home country of Serbia. But her luck ran out four months later after she robbed a Jewelry store in Athens. The basketball player was sentenced to 30 years in jail in 2012, but her sentence was later reduced to 12 years for good behavior.
It makes you wonder what Mike and Lela thought of this robbery—getting caught because your wigs weren’t convincing enough. The fact that the thieves weren’t caught on the job but were later arrested at their apartment just shows that the standards are slipping.
But even though standards are slipping, and the gang’s arrest numbers are going up, the Pink Panthers are still considered criminal masterminds. Besides a crime spree that has lasted for nearly two decades, the Panthers can add something else to their resume: breaking friends out of jail.
In 2013, there was a string of Pink Panther jailbreaks. Milan Poparić, who was 34 at the time, was sentenced to six years in 2009 for the robbery of a Swiss jewelry store. While in jail, he met Adrian Albrecht.
Albrecht was in jail for arson and robbery and had previously escaped from that same prison in 1992. The two convicts escaped after two accomplices rammed their van into the jail’s gate during the prisoners’ exercise time, placed tall ladders over the barbed wire fence, and then began shooting at the prison guards.
The prison break was a surprise to everyone. Not only did the prison claim they had no idea Poparic was a Pink Panther (and that they would have put him in maximum security had they known), but that he was due to be released in a few months.
“We never had any problem with Poparic,” the communication officer for the jail, Anthony Brovarone, told ABC. “He was supposed to be free in January 2014, less than six months from now. We had no reason to fear he would try to escape.”
While no one was hurt, some prison guards were so traumatized by the event that they underwent psychological treatment. A few months earlier, Pink Panther members escaped in another dramatic prison break—this time, in France.
In less than five minutes, five inmates from the Bois-Mermet prison escaped before the eyes of nearly 30 other guards and inmates. So how did they do it? The prisoners were in the prison courtyard when three masked men drove up to the prison walls and threw a bag filled with fake guns over the wall.
The five inmates grabbed the fake guns and began waving them around, threatening the guards. They then sprayed the guards with pepper spray and climbed the prison walls using ladders supplied by the accomplices.
This was nearly identical to a prison break that took place in Switzerland a few months later. “This type of outside accomplice is an extremely new phenomenon in Switzerland,” Brovarone said. He also added that prison guards do not carry guns in Switzerland and were under strict instructions not to do anything in order to avoid casualties.