Interpol is closing in on an international jewel thief network dubbed the "Pink Panthers" in an investigation linking 19 countries that highlights the need for police sharing of DNA data, its leader said on Thursday.
Ronald Noble said DNA links between crime scenes were among the clues that led police to the realisation that jewel heists over the past nine years from Tokyo to Dubai to the tiny European principality of Liechtenstein were all the work of a loosely organised group of around 200 people.
"Over the last nine years, this organised crime group originating in Serbia and Montenegro was responsible for at least 90 armed jewellery store robberies in 19 countries for over 100 million euros ($153.9 million)," Noble said in a telephone interview.
"The robberies would take less than a minute to steal anywhere from 2 million to 25 million euros worth of jewellery."
Noble was speaking from Tokyo after briefing G8 justice and interior ministers on the case in order to illustrate the need to beef up international crime-fighting databases and use them more actively.
One of the key breaks in the case was taking DNA samples from Dubai, where robbers had crashed a car into a jewellery store, and matching these to traces recovered in Liechtenstein. Further investigation uncovered the links to Japan and other cases across Europe.
"What it shows you is these guys can move all the way around the globe," Noble said. "So sharing information, consulting global databases is the way to link these 21st century organised crime groups that move freely from country to country."
Since taking over as secretary-general of Interpol in 2000, the American has led a relentless campaign to get police forces all around the world to make greater use of its databases, especially to detect criminals travelling on stolen passports.
Within a year or two, he wants to expand Interpol's "extraordinarily small" fingerprint database from 75,000 entries to millions - Mexico alone plans to add up to two million.
Countries that trust each other will also be able to use Interpol as a "gateway" to allow mutual access to each other's national fingerprint databases, something that G8 countries are already doing for DNA samples.
Civil rights groups have expressed concern about the mass storage of DNA profiles, but Noble said Interpol would only hold such data on an anonymous basis.
That would enable countries to submit unidentified DNA traces as a means of establishing links to crime scenes elsewhere and then pursuing joint investigations, exactly as in the Pink Panther case.
Noble said Interpol's work had led to about five arrests on that case since last year, including one in France within the past couple of weeks. But the Pink Panther ring was far from being smashed.
"It's not like a traditional organised crime group where you have a head and a number two and a number three and you can say 'I've smashed the ring because we've taken out the leadership'. Here it's much more fluid," Noble said.
"This is going to be a long, ongoing investigation to identify these people, locate them and actually arrest them." (Reuters)