Havana Marking, the director of Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers, a new documentary about the notorious gang of European jewel thieves, very graciously took time to answer some questions recently. Here she speaks about how she was able to meet gang members, whether the Panthers are responsible for recent thefts, and how the industry can improve its security:
You met with some members of the gang for your film. How did you get in touch with them? Do you have any interesting stories about setting up the meetings?
[New Yorker] journalist David Samuels gave me a number of a local who was then able to connect me to another journalist. Between them, they connected me to the Panthers. Then one Panther introduced me to another. Montenegro is a very small country. It is not such a secret who everyone is.
The first time I met one, I had to travel alone in a taxi to a deserted war memorial outside town. I wasn’t allowed to bring a mobile phone and had to wait for a car to eventually drive and pick me up. It was quite scary! But after that, it got more and more simple. I was amazed actually. In the end, it was easy. And strange because I was always open with both them and the police about my plans.
What were they like on a personal level?
Each person seemed to have a different motivation. It was a combination of reasons. Yes, vanity is one. They love that they have this title of “the most successful diamond thieves.” But also, they wanted to tell their side after all the articles written. But even more compelling for two of the characters was that they are not able to talk to anyone about what they do—not their families or anyone outside, and so I actually think it is a relief. It’s cathartic in a way.
Some of their thefts should have made them a lot of money. Why don’t they retire?
The gang discovered a weakness in the international policing, taking advantage of soft borders, false documents, and their own corrupt governments. They exploited it for about seven years. But now [that] Interpol is on board and have stepped up their work, it is much harder for them. Interpol’s “Pink Panther Working Group” was established in 2007, allowing all police forces to share and compare information. This has had a spectacular impact. At the last count, 189 Panthers had been caught somewhere in the world.
Of the three Panthers I talked to, two have now retired and one was arrested. [One] retired specifically because it was getting “too hot.”
We often hear these thefts are “like a movie.” Does pop culture influence how they do things?
Both influence each other. I was not surprised when the robbers told me “it was like the movies.” However I was surprised when the police referred to it like that, too. There were pictures of Michael Mann films on the wall of the office. They are the good guys in the movie.
Is there anything you feel that is unique about the Pink Panthers that makes them able to do such well-planned thefts?
The old crew was brought up under communism and have a very disciplined and trained outlook. Also, some were in the armies—again, an organized and efficient background. The younger ones working are not so organized. But mainly, the real reason they are successful is because of the connections they have in the selling of the jewels. It is not so difficult to steal a diamond but very, very difficult to sell it safely. The route of the diamonds is linked to the criminal routes that were developed during the conflicts of the 1990s in Balkan region.
Can you provide more details in how they dispose of jewelry?
At the end of the production period, we received a call from a man known as Mr. Green, a fence. It is he that disguises the diamond, “legalizes” it and resells it back into the market. He told us he wanted to put the record straight. He was fed up of the Panthers getting the glory. “They just do the street work,” he told me. “Without people like me, they’d be nothing.” He estimates that he receives 30 to 40 percent of the diamond’s market value.
Mr. Green, a Bosnian Serb, was a very small man, with none of the swagger of the previous crooks I had met. He told me he had grown up a peasant woodcutter but had joined an elite Serb paramilitary unit in 1996, the JSO. With their leader Arkan, the notorious and terrifying henchman of [Slobodan] Milosevic, the militia was feared across the region.…
[His] contacts stretched to West Africa, the home of many diamond mines, and to Antwerp, where Mr. Green later set up a diamond business. His team recuts the diamonds and creates new certificates of origin stating that each stolen diamond was mined in Sierra Leone recently. The diamond is usually then untraceable.… “[The Kimberley Process] just made it easier for us: We simply forge those certificates of origin and create a ‘new’ diamond,” he said.…
[Smaller diamonds] have become the currency of the global black market, he added. “You can have a pocket full of diamonds and buy a boatful of cocaine. Now any cash payment over 15,000 euros has to be traced electronically. But who controls diamonds? No one.”
Do you feel the recent high-profile robbery in Cannes was done by the Pink Panthers?
My feeling is that it wasn’t Panthers. I have no idea who did it, but it just didn’t quite seem to fit. The Paris robbery, however, seems more likely. Again, I don’t know for sure.
Any thoughts on how the jewelry industry can improve its security?
People will steal diamonds as long as they can sell them. It is the heart of the industry that needs to be made “safer,” not the stores.
I was so surprised at just how closed and paranoid everyone is in the industry. Much harder to interview a jewelry shop owner or a diamond dealer than a thief!… It makes them appear much more morally dubious than they really are and allows people like Mr. Green to disappear within the streets of Antwerp. I really think it would make things better and safer if everyone opened up and talked.