A police official says co-operation between police agencies is essential to catch members of the Pink Panther gang.
By Drazen Remikovic for Southeast European Times in Podgorica -- 10/01/13
Many members of the Pink Panther gang are from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Serbia and Montenegro. [AFP]
Brains, nerve, courage -- that is how the experts are describing the infamous Pink Panther gang: hundreds of daring jewel thieves, many hailing from the Balkans, who are responsible for stealing more than 500 million euros worth of diamonds and jewellery in the last 20 years.
The gang of thieves has been a high priority for Interpol for years, with the international police agency blaming hundreds of robberies on the group, one of the biggest targets in the fight against organised crime in southeast Europe.
The group's methods are daring and quick. In July, a lone thief walked into a diamond exhibition at a luxury hotel in Cannes. In just 60 seconds, he walked out with $138 million (102 million euros) worth of jewels, leaping from a hotel window to freedom. The midday theft happened in the same hotel featured in famous Alfred Hitchcock film "To Catch a Thief."
Police continue to make progress in arresting alleged group members, such as David Vujovic from Podgorica, who was arrested by Hungarian police last month in connection with the theft of luxury jewellery in several countries.
But there also have been setbacks. In July, 24-year-old Bosnian national Milan Poparic escaped a Swiss prison when two accomplices with machine guns and a ladder drove up to the prison fence and kept guards at bay while Poparic scurried to freedom.
Several leading jewelleries from the region declined to be interviewed by SETimes about the notorious thieves, and many police officials would only say that the organisation is an intelligent, dangerous group. Gojko Vasic, police director in Republika Srpska, said it is widely known that people from the Balkans comprise Pink Panther, which makes its all the more difficult for Interpol to find them.
"I must say that all those who were arrested were practically arrested because of information that the world's police received from us, the Balkans. We know who these people are and that is why they cannot conduct such robbery in the Balkans," Vasic told SETimes.
"For example when the Pink Panther member robbed the jewellery in Tokyo, he can do that comfortably without any masks and protection. If he does that here we would recognise him immediately. The conclusion is that without the co-operation of the police agencies, members of this group would never have been caught. Co-operation is the key."
The criminal group is suspected of stealing millions of euros worth of diamonds in July from the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, France. [AFP]
One reputed member of the group was brazenly interviewed in Montenegro in June by the German daily newspaper Suedeutche Zeitungen. Using the pseudonym "Filip," he described lightning-fast thefts, shedding disguises and said he does not fear the police.
Marko Nicovic, former chief of Interpol's Office in Belgrade, told SETimes that many of those arrested in connection with Pink Panther heists are merely contractors and not full-fledged members of the group.
"The conditions to receive somebody in the Pink Panther are brains, nerve and courage. Please note that no one has ever been killed in a robbery. The ingenuity of these gang members is best illustrated by the fact that during a robbery in Paris in 2008, all the benches across the estate they robbed had signs that read, 'fresh paint.' In this way, they reduce the chance that someone recognises them, eliminating witnesses without having to use weapons."
Interpol has created a special department that is dealing with this group, and according to its data, hundreds of suspects are linked to more than 340 robberies in 35 countries.
Vladimir Pivovarov, a criminology professor at FON University in Skopje, said the region's prisons are a recruiting ground for prospective Pink Panther members.
"The members of this organisation improved their skills right there. The connection of the criminals is an easy thing. The underground functions flawlessly in terms of this issue, in accordance with the unwritten rules that it adheres to. The criminal gang Pink Panther is created exactly according to these rules," Pivovarov told SETimes.
The creation of such a criminal organisation is a long-lasting process," he said. "In order to perform serious criminal acts, such a complex criminal group must consist of persons who have divided roles, and each one of them is a specialist for the given role."
Correspondent Marina Stojanovska in Skopje contributed to this report.
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