This is a story about diamonds, thieves and the Balkans. All across Europe, a spectacularly inventive and elusive gang of jewelry thieves known as the Pink Panthers—a group Interpol believes has stolen more than 350 million Euros worth of jewelry in the past 15 years, often targeting the world’s most exclusive jewelers—have pulled off some of the largest diamond heists in history.
To find the heartland of the Panthers, there is just one place where one needs to look: Cetinje, Montenegro. Many of the arrested thieves were born here, a town that Interpol refers to as “the thieves nest.” Prior to the Balkan Wars, Cetinje was a bustling industrial center. Then the economy collapsed. Many residents now complain about the sanctions and embargoes that drove them into poverty during and after the conflict. To some, the Pink Panthers are exacting revenge on behalf of those in Montenegro who have been stolen from blindly. The refrain for a popular song in the region chimes, “We do not steal from Montenegro, we steal for Montenegro.”
Virtually every resident of Cetinje knows of someone from the village sitting in jail, usually somewhere in Europe, for his involvement with the Pink Panthers’ heists. But the ones who make it out come back with money. Sidewalk cafés, discotheques, the main grocery store—all of these are owned by former Panthers and serve as active recruiting grounds for restive young men seeking an escape from unemployment. “After all, this gives people jobs,” observed a patron in one of Cetinje’s local bars. “I do not care where the money comes from. The main thing [is], it ends up with us.” Despite the gang’s nefarious reputation, many Pink Panthers never get caught.
There are few people in the world with the financial means to purchase the stones that the Panthers steal. According to a top-ranking Pink Panther, most buyers operate out of Belgium, Israel, the U.S. and Arab countries. Certain codes have been established to protect identities: if diamonds are stolen for an Arab client, then a blond woman is mentioned. In this market, jewels sell so fast that they are referred to as “hot potatoes.”
Last year, Foreign Policy magazine named Montenegro a “Mafia State.” It is widely believed that Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, nicknamed King Milo, is usually involved in corruption scandals. A report by the Italian police accused him of turning the country into a haven for smugglers. Although the Pink Panthers’ exploits have taken them across the globe: from London to Dubai, Zurich to Tokyo, Geneva to Singapore, Montenegro—a poor country on the eastern edges of the Adriatic Sea that has for centuries been a haven for a smugglers, pirates, counterfeiters, and thieves of all stripes—continues to be the place they call home.