VICE Reports: Pink Panthers, Part 1
Everyone thought the Pink Panther gang would vanish—especially after the 2012 arrest of one of its leaders. Instead, the jewel thieves have started training new recruits as a way to take revenge on a world they feel has robbed them blind.
The group, hailing from former Yugoslavia, has stolen more than $350 million worth of jewelry in the past 15 years from the world’s most exclusive jewelers, according to Interpol. Now, VICE takes you inside the Pink Panthers’ secret world to learn their history and see how the jewel thieves train new recruits.
This Guy Will Organize the Perfect Robbery for You
Fixers are the consultants of the criminal underworld. Paid to organize crimes without actually getting involved in any of the hands-on stuff, they’re capable of earning large sums of money purely for advising the bank robbers and smash-and-grabbers who employ them.
A couple of years ago, while trying to make a name for myself as a writer, I ghost-wrote a number of true crime autobiographies. One of the people I wrote for was a guy named Colin Blaney, a former member of a Manchester, UK gang called the Wide Awake Firm, who introduced to me a highly respected fixer. “Mr. C” was responsible for organizing a wide variety of crimes, and agreed to talk to me on the condition of anonymity.
VICE: What exactly is the role of a fixer?
Mr. C: A fixer is a person who can influence or set up a time and a place for the perfect robbery. He can organize a person or group of people so they get the job done, so it happens as planned, so it goes off to a tee. The term applies in the same way in the drug world; it’s somebody who’s behind the scenes, organizing the movement of drugs. Drug cartels will trust the fixer to plan how they move the drugs, how the money is laundered, when the product’s coming through, how much of it is coming through, which countries each bit’s going to, and so on.
Talk me through the process of fixing a robbery then. What does it entail?
Well, I’ll give you an example. I know of a job that was done where a load of expensive watches were stolen. The guys had a car and a motorbike stolen in advance. On the day of the robbery they went into the shop, took all of the high-priced watches out and bagged them up. They knew that they only had a certain length of time before the helicopters scrambled, so they did it quickly and then jumped into the car, knowing it would be spotted right away and the police would be looking for it. They then drove to a set of bollards. A motorcycle was positioned there. The police can’t go through bollards, so the robbers could escape that way.
The King of the Pickpockets
The Snail is the best pickpocket in Ciudad Juárez. He’s stealthily snatched wallets and cash from politicians in Sonora, federal police officers in Durango, and undercover cops in Mexicali tasked with his arrest. If half his stories are true, he’s the best in Mexico, but that’s hard to say for certain. There’s no way to quantify achievements in petty theft, no Pickpocket Hall of Fame, but there was a time—if you believe him—when the Snail was so respected by the police that they let him go about his business undisturbed.
I found out about the Snail after I became interested in pickpockets—their stories, their ethics, their art of nonviolent robbery. I started asking people with ties to the criminal world whom I should talk to, and everyone from former beat cops to the pirated-DVD vendors on the street told me I needed to find the Snail, who they referred to as the “king of the pickpockets.”
I tracked him down and discovered he’s retired now, a dark-skinned man in his mid-50s running a soup kitchen on the El Paso border. He still receives gifts from old friends— cops and gangsters both—and a handful of glommers-on are always around to rub shoulders with greatness and pick up tips and tricks. One recent afternoon, I drove out to the kitchen to meet him.
The Company Helping Movie Studios Sue You for Illegal Downloading Has Been Using Images Without Permission
As you may already know, Voltage Pictures, the company responsible for the movie The Hurt Locker, (as well as a million movies you’ve never heard of) is currently in court, attempting to get an Ontario-based internet service provider to release the names associated with over 1000 IP addresses that they claim belong to people who illegally downloaded their copyrighted material.
These IP addresses were gathered by an extraordinarily douchey company called Canipre, the only antipiracy enforcement firm currently offering services in Canada.
Canipre, as a company, offers to track down people who are illegally downloading copyrighted material from record companies and film studios. According to their website, they have issued more than 3,500,000 takedown notices, and their work has led to multimillion dollar damages awards, injunctions, seizure of assets, and even incarceration.
But it’s not like Canipre is doing this just to get rich. In a recent interview, Canipre’s managing director Barry Logan explained that it’s about much more than just money—he’s hoping to teach the Canadian public a moral lesson:
”[We want to] change social attitudes toward downloading. Many people know it is illegal but they continue to do it… Our collective goal is not to sue everybody… but to change the sense of entitlement that people have, regarding Internet-based theft of property.”
Here is a screenshot of the front page of the Canipre website as it appeared when I visited it this morning.
The image you see in the background is this self portrait, by Steve Houk.
I contacted Steve and asked if they had sought permission to use the picture. Steve said, “No. In no way have I authorized or licensed this image to anyone in any way.”
So, just to be clear: Canipre has written “they all know it’s wrong and they’re still doing it.” Referring to copyright theft. On top of an image that they are using without the permission of the copyright holder. On their official website.
Are Canadians About to Be Prosecuted for File Sharing?
As of late, a company named Canipre has been drumming up a lot of shadily defined fear mongering against“one million Canadians” who they insist are illegally downloading copyrighted material. If you have never heard of Canipre, they’re a new company that’s looking for record label and film studio clients they can work with to suck the cash out of Canadian citizens. Canipre has teamed up with two god-awful movie studios to begin their noble journey. The first is Voltage Pictures, who has released a ton of movies that are barely bargain bin worthy, plus a film you may know called The Hurt Locker. Canipre’s other companion in this shakedown mission is NGN Productions, who has released such gems as Paparazzi Princess: The Paris Hilton Story, a made-for-TV program, and Recoil, an action movie with Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Not only is it bullshit that Stone Cold Steve Austin has been dragged into this mess, the tactics behind Canipre’s lawsuits seem to be bullshit as well. On Canipre’s website, they proudly advertise to potential clients that “when asked, 95%” of accused file-sharers “stop” downloading entirely. Evidently, they like to brag about their bullying tactics. Their front page also has a randomly generating slogan that spouts out wisdom like, “it’s an arms race, and your bottom line is the target,” “your audience isn’t rational,” and “if they keep thinking it’s free, when do you go out of business?”
A screenshot from Canipre’s friendly website.
As for Canada’s copyright laws, a close reading of the penalties detailed in our new amendment to the copyright act, C-11, leads to some uncertainties. For example, if you are found guilty of “circumventing” a “technological protection measure” you can be fined up to $25,000 or sentenced to a maximum of sixth months in jail. Would that include breaking the iTunes DRM off an album that someone purchased, then sending that newly “unprotected” digital copy to a friend?
Meth Heads Are Robbing Peoples’ Graves
Grave robbing—or tomb raiding, or pot hunting, or fucking around with archaeological sites—occupies a strange corner of our culture. Part Tomb Raider, part cartoon horror punk, traditionally it’s been the territory of savvy locals who’ve wanted to make a quick, immoral buck selling historical trinkets on the black market. But more recently, digging up dead bodies to steal their shit has attracted a different breed of asshole, as keyed-up meth-heads have been lured out into the sticks to spend nights on end searching for ancient loot they can flog to fund their habits.
To get more of an insight into the kind of people who dig up the graves of the deceased and rifle through their stuff, I spoke to the archaeologist Delfin Weis, who has worked on digs across the country.
VICE: Hi Delfin. It seems like grave robbing goes on quite a lot. When did it start up?
Delfin Weis: General grave robbing has been happening forever, but meth-fuelled looting started in the late 1990s and got really big in the early 2000s. Archaeologists started noticing it in the field around then.
How would they notice that? They’d show up at a dig and see it had been looted?
Yeah, either that, or they’d see tweakers at the site, or find that tweakers were following them to the site. Of course, on meth, you have to do something, so these guys have nearly limitless energy and time, giving them the ability to dig holes all through the day and night. They can also keep surveying the site until they find something worth taking. They have the time, they have the energy, and they have a drug addiction that they need to fund.
So the meth gives them the energy to fund their habit?
Yeah. There are areas where pot hunting goes on without meth, but this is just another dimension. Meth addicts who grow up near burial grounds and other archaeological sites know the area and know they can make money from it.
How I Became One of the Most Successful Art Smugglers in the World
Having turned the craft of international art smuggling into an art in its own right, Michel Van Rijn was once wanted by authorities all over the world for sneaking valuable pieces of art across sea and land. With millions in the bank, Michel lived the life of a playboy. He owned private planes, enjoyed a harem of beautiful women, and did business with some of the world’s most dangerous criminals—many of whom were members of various governments (and probably still are).
Art smuggling has been his racket since he was 20 years old. Dealing with upper class gangsters and supposedly legitimate art dealers, he’s been shot, extradited, jailed, hunted by MI6 and Interpol, and received photos of his children in the mail by way of a very unsettling threat from his enemies.
He hasn’t given many interviews over the past six years, but I managed to track him down for a chat. After learning I did a bit of unlicensed boxing before becoming a journalist, Michel took a liking to me, as he is a fighter himself. He once had so many contracts on his head that Scotland Yard detectives allegedly placed bets on how long he had left to live before he was murdered by a hitman.
Well built, bearded and rugged, Michel greeted me, took a drag of his cigarette, and agreed to speak about the lucrative world of art smuggling and how he became the kingpin of it.
VICE: Art smuggling doesn’t seem like a very easy thing to get into. How did you first get involved?
Michel: Well, by the time I was 15 I had been kicked out of seven schools. I must have been ADHD or whatever, because I fucking hated school and was always looking to start something for myself. So I began importing cheap hippie coats from Istanbul. They were basically sheepskins turned inside out with some sleeves on them. I began selling them in this hashish bar in Holland. They sold like fucking hotcakes. So I was going up and down between Istanbul and Holland quite a lot. Business was going well, and I was eventually approached in Istanbul by a man named E.
E was established in the international art market, as well as the black market at the time. He must have seen some potential in me. Obviously you had to take risks in the art smuggling world, and he probably saw me as somebody who would take them, which was indeed true. I had a Dutch passport as well, which I’m sure didn’t hurt. So E wanted me to take these stolen antique byzantine oil lamps and crucifixes back with me to Holland. I did, and sold them for top dollar to private collectors in Europe.
Happy with my work, the next time he took me to Armenia. He was smuggling of course, and when we got there we had drinks with the chief of police. There was a big organization bringing in lots of pieces from Moscow and Leningrad. The Russians and the Armenians were like mafia clans. They were very well organized and working together. From there we took a bunch of art and flew to Beirut—the customs there were in on the game. We paid them off. That was basically the first time I smuggled on a large scale.
What were you smuggling?
Fabergé icons. There were crates and crates and crates of them. I saw them being loaded onto the plane as I was sitting inside, only half believing that it was happening like this. You see your own luggage going onto the plane, followed by three tremendous crates filled with stolen art.
Some have called you the world’s most successful art smuggler. That’s a big title. What does it take to get to that level?
It is a very pretentious title, but yeah I was a big-time smuggler. I was very ambitious. It all started to get serious when I went to Russia after Beirut. In Russia the art smugglers all worked together so that they could have their claws in many different countries overseas. So if you were “in the game” and a promising prospect like I probably was and had contacts with one clan, you could have contacts with all the clans. I was involved in a big way because I knew all the people and could reach out to them. I could get to the countries behind the iron curtain. I was also dealing with VIPs. Don’t think this was some kind of scumbag organization—we were dealing with people who were very high up on the political ladder. All you had to do was make sure everybody had his cut.
I remember having dinners with VIPs and there’d be a hooker under the table. You’d have to try to keep your face straight while she crawled around giving all the blokes blowjobs. If you couldn’t keep your face straight while she was sucking you off you had to pay the bill. [laughs]
I also learned to drink in Russia, because if you didn’t drink with them they didn’t trust you. So I learned to buy the icons like this [holds a hand over one of his eyes to show how drunk he was]. I really learned the basics there. The Russians are very educated. I had a great time, which made me forget that this was my university. This was the first time I learned about big smuggling. There was a black market and I became an outlet who had the possibilities to market everything in the West.
Who were you selling the smuggled art to?
Well, you would plant things at auctions. I had a gallery and there were straightforward buyers in the market who you could be a middleman to. The profit was tremendous.