Epic Diamond Heist: Did the Pink Panthers Strike Again?

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AFP / Getty Images

A combination of two undated pictures released by the Swiss police on July 26, 2013 shows, from left, member of the Pink Panther gang Bosnian Milan Poparic and Swizterland's Adrian Albrecht. A Bosnian from the "Pink Panther" gang of international jewel thieves escaped from a Swiss prison in a dramatic break-out involving a fellow inmate and two armed accomplices, police said on July 26, 2013.

Gunmen from the international jewelry thief network known as the Pink Panthers launched an assault last Thursday on a prison in western Switzerland that lasted just long enough for one imprisoned member and another inmate to escape.

The timing of the jailbreak, just days before one of the largest diamond heists in history, raised suspicions that, just as Danny Ocean’s release from prison in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven coincided with his group’s next heist, the Pink Panthers may have played a role in the theft.

On Sunday, a robber wearing gloves and a scarf to mask his face walked into a diamond show at the luxury Carlton Hotel in Cannes, France, held up participants of the show with a handgun, and fled with $136 million worth of goods (a local assistant prosecutor told the Associated Press that there was no indication yet that the suspect was linked to organized crime).

It’s no surprise that the Pink Panthers, for whom audacity has become something of a modus operandi, come to mind. A loose international network of about 200 members, including a host of ex-soldiers hardened by the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the group has thrived on similar brazen operations. The organization gained notoriety—and a name—following a 1993 London heist in which the robbers stole a £500,000 diamond that authorities later found hidden in a jar of face cream, the same hiding spot chosen by a thief in the 1970s film The Return of the Pink Panther starring Peter Sellers as the blundering Inspector Clouseau.

Since then, Pink Panthers members crashed their cars into a Dubai jewelry store and drove off with $3.4 million worth of diamonds, sprayed employees in a Tokyo jewelry store with tear gas ($3.6 million), and disguised themselves as women in a raid on a Paris jeweler ($100 million), among other heists.

“The first thing I do when I arrive in Holland is I get a good car, preferably a BMW 5 Series, with a hook on the rear,” a former Pink Panthers member told current TIME editor Matt McAllester (then writing in the Global Post) in 2010. “The hook is important because it helps when I drive in reverse into a jewelry shop.”

Interpol says the Pink Panthers have stolen more than 330 million euros worth of goods over the course of 341 robberies since 1999 alone. The agency established Project Pink Panthers in 2007 to coordinate a global campaign against the jewelry thieves, scoring several high profile arrests.

But the criminal network lacks any core structure for Interpol to target, according to McAllester. “The existence of a coherent Pink Panther gang is almost as fanciful as anything Inspector Clouseau ever nosed around in,” he writes. “Interpol officials and the criminals themselves agree that the so-called gang is a loose conglomeration of separate gangs.”

The battle has dragged on also in part because the thief network has proven itself in the art of jailbreaks. In 2005, the suspected ringleader Dragan Mikic, who was later sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison for a series of robberies committed in France, escaped a French prison in an operation that mirrored Thursday’s assault. This May, two members escaped from another Swiss prison after outside collaborators supplied them a bag of wire cutters and a fake pistol.

In the last year and a half, Interpol says member countries have reported at least 23 new cases around the world linked to the Pink Panthers.