When it comes to famous bandits and organized crime we often think of underground American groups or maybe even the Yakuza in Japan, but one group that’s been working steadily for decades with a high level of success is the Pink Panthers gang. Even though they have a goofy name, they’ve got quite the resume. These international jewel thieves have been ripping off high-end jewelry shops throughout Europe since the 1990s, and there’s no sign they’re slowing down.
The Pink Panthers' members are mostly a mystery to Interpol and the international police agency, but they have made some headway thanks to former personnel coming forward in the press, and in a 2012 documentary titled, Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers. Even with the members of the group who have come forward, it’s hard to know everything about how the Pink Panthers organized crime operation works - like who they are, when, and where the next Pink Panthers robbery will occur.
In order to pull off the heists the Pink Panthers have committed, they need to have innumerable members who are each highly and uniquely skilled. They have at least 200 members around the world, but there could be more of them depending on the day. Even though the Panthers are mostly from Eastern Europe, they're not all from the same country, and some come from as far as Italy, France, Belgium, Holland, and Denmark.
While speaking with The New Yorker, a Serbian man named Eugene who claimed to have knowledge of the Panthers' many offenses explained that the Panther are "junkies," and some have families of their own. He elaborated on the core attitude of the group, saying:
They hate everybody. They hate Germany, the Vatican, the USA, their own governments. They’re junkies who hate. You get a call from a guy, you meet ten other guys, and you get paid. Some are cousins. Some are good friends. All of them will be in prison in five or 10 years.
As cool as it would have been for the Pink Panthers to name themselves, they actually earned their title by trying to pull off a swindle similarly to the way in which the plot was carried out in the Peter Sellers movie. In May 2003, the Panthers pulled a smash and grab where they made off with 47 pieces of diamond jewelry.
As the police closed in on the group, they hid the diamonds wherever they could, including a jar of moisturizing product. When the police caught up with Panthers in a hotel room they searched high and low, and they finally discovered the diamonds when one officer stuck his fingers into a jar of face cream. The outright audacity of the scheme turned the group into minor celebrities, with the British press dubbing them "The Pink Panthers."
The Pink Panthers may be a formless group of crooks, but they do have a specific origin story. The beginning of the Pink Panthers was sparked following the break up of Yugoslavia in 1992, and while many of the current members are from all over Europe, the originals are mainly Yugoslavian.
When Yugoslavia disintegrated it left its people in disarray. Poverty reigned, and there was no real way to make money. Rather than scrounge for food, the original members of the group turned to banditry in order to make dough. As sanctions were applied to Europe, legal trade became impossible for people in the area, so a major free-for-all broke out.
The director of the 2012 documentary, Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers, Havana Marking explained, "People almost had to become criminals to survive. And the Pink Panthers were sort of young men at the time who decided that diamonds... was going to be their particular niche of crime."
What the Pink Panthers are doing is clearly illicit, no one is disputing that, but in their home country and even abroad, that's secondary to the awe in which their actions are held. People in former Yugoslavia revere the group that robs from the rich and gives to the poor. While they may not exactly give all their money to the people in their country, they do spend plenty of it in the area, which acts as a kind of trickle-down economics.
Aside from the way in which they spend their money in former Yugoslavia, the group's antics and methods are recognized as fairly interesting. They smash Audis into buildings, set their cars ablaze, and make off with valuable diamonds. It's hard not to be impressed with the way they do their jobs, though it should be noted their unlawful actions do affect retail workers and bystanders who witness these outrageous events.