Copyright ©2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Over the weekend in Cannes, a resort town on the French Riviera, a thief walked into the Carlton International Hotel and took off with more than $130 million worth of diamonds and other jewels. There are no suspects, but some wonder whether a ring of jewelry thieves, known as the Pink Panthers, could be behind it.

The heist took place just as we're about to learn more about the Pink Panthers. A new documentary called "Smash and Grab" opens tomorrow in New York. The film details the Pink Panthers' exploits, which has targeted jewelry shops in Europe, the Middle East, as well as Asia.

From Paris, Christopher Werth has the story.

CHRISTOPHER WERTH, BYLINE: When jewel thieves go to Paris, they come here.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

WERTH: The Place Vendome Square is the city's epicenter of luxury. There's Bulgari, Dior, and the French jeweler Chaumet...

(SOUNDBITE OF A CONVERSATION)

WERTH: ...where the company's jewelry-maker, Pascal Bourdariat, shows me a sparkling new ring with a price tag of over $330,000.

PASCAL BOURDARIAT: Is a white gold, 18 carats and there's diamonds everywhere.

WERTH: How many diamonds are in there?

BOURDARIAT: About 200.

WERTH: Two hundred diamonds?

BOURDARIAT: Yeah, you hate me, I'm sure because we put diamonds everywhere, but ladies like it very much.

WERTH: It doesn't appear the Pink Panthers have hit this particular store. Neither Chaumet nor any other jeweler would agree to talk about the thieves. But the group's story has all the trappings of a Hollywood thriller. According to the international police agency, Interpol, the Pink Panthers have stolen nearly a half a billion dollars worth of jewels - over roughly 500 robberies. It's thought to have more than 200 members who work all over the world.

And the police, well, they really like to chase these guys.

CHIEF HELENE DUPIF: For us it's very interesting because they are real professional robbers and very difficult for us to catch.

WERTH: Helene Dupif is chief of the Brigade for the Repression of Banditry, a Paris police unit with a name that sounds like it's straight out of some film farce.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE THEME MUSIC, "THE PINK PANTHER")

WERTH: In fact, the Pink Panthers got their name when police in London made an arrest in 2003 and found a diamond ring hidden in a jar of face cream - a ploy nearly identical to a scene from one of the original "Pink Panther" comedies starring Peter Sellers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE PINK PANTHER")

PETER SELLERS: (as Inspector Jacques Clouseau) Mark my words, Francois. Sinister forces are at work.

WERTH: In real life, those sinister forces go all the way back to the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, as the documentary "Smash and Grab" shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SMASH & GRAB")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The ethnically mixed communities of Muslims, Serbs and Croats have traditionally lived together in peace...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...until the majority of the people in Bosnia and Herzegovina voted for independence...

WERTH: Havana Marking is the film's director.

HAVANNA MARKING: These thieves all come out of that place and that period. And through the stories of these gang members, you actually got a very clear and fascinating picture of the region.

WERTH: Marking managed to interview five Pink Panther members, all still on the loose in Europe. She says they turned to crime amid the poverty left by the Yugoslav wars.

MARKING: As the Western world tried to sort of get stability back, these horrific acts of warfare that were going on, one of the first things they did was to apply massive sanctions. And it meant that nobody could legally trade. So suddenly someone wasn't able to sell their wheat or the cars they produced or anything. And then that led to a kind of black market that people saw sort of as a free-for-all. People almost had to become criminals to survive.

And the Pink Panthers were sort of young men at the time who decided that diamonds and jewel thieves was going to be their particular niche of crime.

WERTH: And as one of the thieves in the film says, this is not your traditional mafia gang, with a leader who controls everything from the top.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SMASH & GRAB")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We are a network of teams working together. Everybody has a specific job to do. So we all depend on each other.

WERTH: His words are voiced by an actor in the film, which dispenses with any notion of glamour and delves into the mind of a diamond thief.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SMASH & GRAB")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I don't know why people spend money on diamonds. You know, I don't suffer from this showing off. For me, diamonds mean good cash. When you open a safe and you see it's a full, full safe, that's a feeling, it's like, ah. It's like a feeling you might faint any moment. I love that. I had a good deal of money.

WERTH: That money has made the Pink Panthers revered figures in the former Yugoslavia. Helene Dupif, of the Brigade for the Repression of Banditry, says members of the group are often portrayed as Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich and taking their wealth back home to poor Balkan countries.

DUPIF: I do not agree with that because they are not Robin Hood. They are only hooligans.

WERTH: And law enforcement agencies across the globe are coordinating to crack down on the jewel thieves.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

WERTH: At the Paris police brigade's headquarters, Detective Herve Conan scans old security camera footage of the Pink Panthers...

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

DETECTIVE HERVE CONAN: Just a minute.

WERTH: ...robbing a German jewelry store.

CONAN: OK, the first one is inside.

WERTH: He's just walked in with a gun.

CONAN: That's correct. He's waiting. OK, the second one.

WERTH: The footage shows a classic Pink Panther smash and grab, thus the title of the documentary. The thieves wear wigs and fake glasses. They force the sales clerk to the floor, smash the store's display cases, and in no time they're gone. Conan says the average Pink Panther robbery takes as little as 60 seconds.

CONAN: When you're working on these guys, you understand that they've worked a lot to find the jewelry and to know how to flee from the crime scene.

WERTH: And documentary filmmaker Havana Marking says one factor that's made the Pink Panthers so successful, is their unique ability to actually sell the jewelry and the diamonds they've stolen.

MARKING: They can get it to the buyer. They can get it to the person who's going to forge the diamond certificate. And then within 24 hours, they can have sold these diamonds.

WERTH: "Smash and Grab" contends that many of those illicit diamonds end up in the United States. But Detective Conan, of the Paris police, says the Pink Panther era is nearly finished. He says most of the thieves hail from Serbia and Montenegro, which are becoming more willing to hand over suspects to international law enforcement.

CONAN: Serbia and Montenegro want to go in the European Union. So in the past, they were untouchable and now they can be arrested.

WERTH: Conan says suspects in custody refuse to reveal anything about the inner workings of the Pink Panther gang, but he insists many of the group's highest-profile members are now in prison. As a result, filmmaker Havana Marking says the criminals in "Smash and Grab" come across as depressed, lonely and haunted.

MARKING: By the end of the film, you actually have a very real picture of these thieves. They're not happy people living it up in the sun on the millions that they've made.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SMASH & GRAB")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It would be very nice, you know, to feel secure; to be in your home, safe. This is the consequence of this job - paranoia. I walk down the street and my head goes like, am I being followed? Has anybody seen me?

WERTH: But the Pink Panthers are still on the prowl. Last week, one convicted member escaped from a Swiss prison, making him the third to do so since May.

For NPR News, I'm Christopher Werth in Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE THEME MUSIC, "THE PINK PANTHER")

GREENE: You know that song. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: