Interpol's annual Pink Panther conference. Photo courtesy of Interpol; all other photos by the authors
There are plenty of theories about how the Pink Panthers were formed. The international network of jewel thieves—who were given their nickname by Interpol in 1993 after one team of Panthers mimicked a theft from an Inspector Clouseau film—is thought to be made up of mostly Serbians and Montenegrins, which is why some believe that the organization was formed by Serbian militants during the Yugoslav Wars of the 90s.
The story goes that a number of the network's founding fathers belonged to the Arkan Tigers, a paramilitary group controlled by Serbian career criminal Željko Ražnatović, a.k.a. “Arkan,” and blamed for massacres in Bosnia. After meeting in the militia, the crooks supposedly went on a thieving rampage through Europe, ploughing the money made from their stolen goods back into their compatriots’ campaigns. Since those early days the criminal network is believed to have conducted 370 heists, nabbing some $500 million worth of jewels. They have disguised themselves as golfers, Hawaiian tourists, and workmen to pull off jobs, from which they've escaped in speedboats, scooters, and bicycles. They are the most successful band of diamond theives in history.
Of course, the above is mostly speculation at best—it’s hard to say anything definitive about the secretive group. But everyone agrees that they’re a highly organized, highly professional group of individuals. Thought to be dispersed throughout 35 different countries, the network is so prolific that Interpol has even created a special task force to chase them; the Pink Panthers project meets at an annual conference to exchange information, coordinate activities, and discuss how best to deal with their fabled foes.
In Greece, officers at the Property Crimes Unit (YDEZI) have caught three groups of Panthers since 2007. The most recent arrests were on March 3, when the cops apprehended four Serbian men, who, in the past year, have broken into 30 stores, most of them jewelry shops.
Some of the stolen items recovered by YDEZI after the recent Pink Panthers arrest.
We spoke to George Papasifakis, a YDEZI deputy involved in the arrest, while we looked over the Panthers’ recovered spoils. Piles of gold watches, jewelry, and cell phones were still scattered on tables in the YDEZI headquarters, waiting to be claimed by their owners. Among the evidence gathered by the police is the battering ram used by Panthers in “difficult” cases.
“We have mutual respect for each other,” Papasifakis said. “We ‘appreciate’ the way they work—their organization, speed, and their skill at evading us. But when we catch them, they too admit that we do a good job.”
Papasifakis has been in charge of investigating Pink Panther groups active in Greece for the past few years, and much of the credit when it comes to the recent arrests can be awarded to him and his experienced team of investigators.
Stolen phones recovered by YDEZI after the recent Pink Panthers arrest.
“All those arrested in Greece had fought in the war in former Yugoslavia, and this is one of the ways they relate to each other,” said Papasifakis, before explaining what he and his team have discovered about Pink Panther operations. “The criminal organization has a common modus operandi that involves three stages: preparation, penetration, and escape," he said.
"Initially, the Panthers perform surveillance of the place by pretending to be customers. They then steal cars from the 90s that don’t have electronic anti-theft systems installed, using impromptu passe-partout keys—known as ‘Polish keys’—which, by the by, is their signature move. And finally, using the ram-raiding method, they break into the shops.
“They’ve also used other methods to get into shops. On other occasions they’ve used straps, wires, or climbing ropes to tie the doors, then they normally dump the cars and escape on motorcycles, having snatched expensive watches and jewelry.”
Stolen watches recovered by YDEZI after the recent Pink Panthers arrest
As much as Papasifakis and his team have uncovered, trying to define the Panthers’ methodology is problematic, as there’s no centralized structure handing down orders of how things should be done. Unlike many crime syndicates, which have a leader at the top of a pyramid, the Pink Panthers operate in cells that go about their business independently from one another, much like al Qaeda and its various international affiliates.
That said, every Pink Panther robbery has its similarities—the primary one being that once they enter a shop or a jewelers, they know exactly where to go and exactly what to do. The average Pink Panther robbery takes 60 seconds or less; they decide what they want in advance and get out as quickly as they came in.
I asked Papasifakis how new members are indoctrinated. “Nobody really knows,” he answered. “Someone is definitely moving the strings on the ground in Serbia, and someone is in charge of initiating and educating the younger members—some members who have yet to be arrested pass on their expertise to others. Many wonder whether there’s an element of patriotism to the whole thing, but no one can answer with confidence. In my opinion, it’s more likely that they influence each other, imitating one another and learning the tricks of the trade.”
Evidence recovered by YDEZI after the recent Pink Panthers arrest.
The various Panther members all seem to take the same approach to their robberies. “They prefer to be sober to ensure they have complete control over their movements,” said Papasifakis. “And they never carry guns during a break-in either. Generally, they try to minimize risk by stealing cars from different neighborhoods, discarding their mobile phones, and generally by leading a quiet life.
"Only the first group [that we caught in 2007] ‘showed off’—the members stayed in lavish hotels in Glyfada [a wealthy neighbourhood in southern Athens], moved around in expensive rented cars, and spent a lot of money on their appearance and activities.”
That particular case was widely covered by the Greek press at the time because Olia Cirkovic—a female Serbian basketball player who’d played for a popular Greek team in the 90s—had participated in the robbery. The “spider-woman,” as she was dubbed after the raid, was in charge of casing the site before the robbery took place, and would then complete the job with her partners. She popped up again in the press when she escaped from Korydallos prison in 2011 before being apprehended four months later.
A flyer for this year's Interpol Pink Panthers conference among stolen items recovered in the recent YDEZI arrests.
The Panthers caught in March of this year were far more wary than Cirkovic and her squad. According to Papasifakis, the group had gone to great lengths to avoid being identified and captured: They used fake passports, fake ID cards, and fake driver's licenses, and communicated with each other using "ghost phones"—mobile phones registered under fake names.
With all of this protection in place, I asked Papasifakis how his team had managed to track the Panthers down. “No crime is perfect,” he said. “We keep a close eye on them. They’re bound to make a mistake, and it’s our duty to be there when that happens. During our most recent investigation, one of the perpetrators had a document with a photo and his personal information on it. The photo was real but the name on the document was fake. And we started to look into it… The main thing is to know what it is you’re looking for. We’ve studied the group for a long time and we have a good idea of what to look for now. From there on, we sit tight, waiting for the right moment to make simultaneous arrests in the area.
“Usually they won’t admit to anything on record. Even when we say we have incriminating evidence linking them to ten, 20, or 30 cases, they usually reply: ‘You may well have, but our code of honor won’t allow us to say anything.’ This is worthy of some respect,” admitted Papasifakis.
Before putting down the phone, I asked the deputy whether he thinks his team have won the battle against Pink Panthers—if the recent capture might put them off trying to bust into any more jewelry stores in Athens. “We may have already caught three groups, but we’re under no illusion that they’re going to disappear,” he answered. “They’re bound to make another appearance and, when they do, we’ll be here, with even more experience under our belts.”