MONACO After six years of being outwitted by the so-called "Pink Panther" jewel thieves, police from 16 countries have met in Monaco to coordinate efforts to capture the gang that has bagged loot worth up to $200 million.
The Pink Panthers are estimated to have staged some 120 attacks on luxury stores in around 20 countries, since their first robbery in London's exclusive Mayfair district in 2003.
International police organization Interpol believes there may be as many as 200 "Pink Panther" criminals, many of whom are Serbian nationals with military experience.
The group was given its nickname by British police after the 2003 robbery and refers to the debonair gentleman diamond robber from the 1960s Pink Panther film.
The truth is very different, says Emmanuel Leclaire, deputy director of criminal affairs and drug trafficking at Interpol.
"These are violent people with a lot of weaponry who don't hesitate to open fire if they get into difficulty, even if they haven't killed anyone yet," said Leclaire during the two-day police gathering on Wednesday and Thursday.
The group pulled off one of their most spectacular heists last December when they walked away with up to 85 million euros ($110 million) worth of goods after entering the Harry Winston jewelers in central Paris disguised as women.
Pointing guns at terrified staff, the men emptied the shop's safes and display cases in less than 20 minutes, unobserved by passersby on the exclusive Avenue Montaigne.
Insurers offered a $1 million reward for information leading to the arrest of the group, but so far to no avail.
Unlike major organized crime groups, such as the Sicilian Mafia, police say the Pink Panthers have no clear organizational structure and are instead broken down into small, mobile units.
They have a penchant for luxury watches, which are easier to sell than unique pieces of jewelry, but investigators admit they do not know the full scope of their crime network.
"We know that their favorite targets are luxury jewelers, but we don't yet really know if they are involved in passing on stolen goods, or are involved in drug or arms trafficking or deal in counterfeit papers," said Interpol's Leclaire.
Police from countries as far apart as Japan, the United States and Switzerland met to share photos, finger prints and insight hoping for breakthroughs in their cases.
A number of Pink Panther suspects have already been arrested over the years, and 40 are in prison in various countries, but police say they are not close to dismantling the whole group.
"They go into prison, then they come out. It never ends," said Andre Muhlberger, head of public safety in Monaco.
"By and large they are not very talkative and I'm afraid it will be impossible to have them all behind bars at the same time," he added.
(Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Louise Ireland)