Milos Jovanovic

Milos Jovanovic, believed to be a member of the Balkan Pink Panthers, is wanted in Liechtenstein. (Interpol)

So let's get this straight. A guy in the raspberry business from western Serbia smashes and grabs his way through a heist eight time zones away in Tokyo and scoots off past shopping centers and sushi bars with a $31-million necklace known as the Countess of Vendome.

It happens.

Djordjije Rasovic graced arrest warrants, a thief with brazen nerves, part of an international Balkan crime gang known as the Pink Panthers. He and one of his accomplices, Snowy, another name too whimsical for the harsh impulses of the former Yugoslavia, brought a bit of high jinks to a land haunted by war criminals and atrocities.

The Panthers, a collection of 150 to 200 Balkan bad guys and a few women, have stolen about $140 million in jewelry and watches over the last decade from 100 luxury shops around the world, including boutiques in Paris, London, Monaco and Dubai.

They come in rough, swinging hammers and axes, shattering glass, flashing semiautomatic pistols and an occasional grenade, and vanishing with gems in satchels lined with toilet paper to prevent scratching.

They're untailored and uncoiffed, preferring black leather jackets and ball caps to cashmere and cuff links, a kind of "Ocean's 11" minus the panache. But they're disciplined and fluent in many languages, and they strike with precision.

Their heists usually clock in at 90 seconds, and when one of them gets arrested, like, say, Rasovic, another takes his place in an organization that has grown wiser since the early days, when its members were so brash they didn't bother to conceal their faces.

"They've become more than pure criminals, they're heroes," said Dragan Ilic, a morning radio talk show host in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. "They're violent but they haven't killed anyone. It's as if they're saying, 'We can beat the technologically superior West with our raw power and intelligence.' They're feeding the Western myth of the dark, tribal Balkans -- these criminals coming from those wars and woods."

Panther lore has crept into chat rooms and elsewhere in cyberspace. One of them skied in the French Alps before knocking off a nearby jewelry store; others case shops for months, buying watches and trinkets and befriending managers.

On the website of Blic, a popular Serbian tabloid, a man giving his name as Markus wrote: "I hope somebody from the Pink Panthers corporation reads this message and invites me to join their team. You have become myth and you're still alive. I'm crossing my fingers for you. I hope you rob the U.S. Federal Reserve."

The Panthers lead hidden lives among Europe's Balkan diaspora of refugees, former paramilitary fighters, opportunists and laborers who watched Yugoslavia splinter throughout the 1990s. Working in hospitals, bars and restaurants, they're summoned by messages to join comrades and hatch robberies on streets that glow with designer names.

Some law enforcement officials suggest the Panthers work for the Italian or Russian mafias; others say they're an independent syndicate whose money is sent to the Balkans to buy real estate.

They've become so proficient that they've inspired copycats, and the aura of the Pink Panthers lingers around crime scenes like the infectious theme from the 1963 movie that is their namesake. Scotland Yard came up with the nickname after police found a blue diamond ring worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in a jar of face cream -- similar to a scene from "The Pink Panther."

Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau would be stymied by the likes of Dragan Mikic, a former soldier, taxi driver, used-car salesman and business manager who, with two accomplices, headed for the Courchevel ski resort in France and walked into the Doux jewelry store at 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 31, 2003. Dressed like tourists and brandishing fake guns, the thieves made off with jewelry valued at several million dollars. Mikic was arrested the next day after a clerk identified him while he was buying a train ticket with a 500-euro note.

Described as one of the group's masterminds, Mikic rarely goes quietly to his cell. In 2003, he escaped from a French courthouse. He was captured, but two years later he was sprung from prison when fellow Panthers fired Kalashnikov rifles at guard towers while he hustled down a ladder. In 2008, he was convicted and sentenced in absentia for the Courchevel robbery and heists in Saint-Tropez, Cannes and Biarritz.

"It's audacity," said Monaco criminal investigation chief Andre Muhlberger. "Difficulty doesn't stop them. . . . When you've lived through the atrocities of war, and especially a civil war, you don't have the same fears as you or me."

Most of the Pink Panthers are Serbs, and most of them come from the city of Nis, an amalgam of block-style buildings and flaking Ottoman-era facades rising from farm fields at the foot of a mountain. Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's warped nationalism resonated in Nis for years, but wars and sanctions hobbled the town's big employers -- TV manufacturers and the textile and metal industries -- and Serbia's third-largest city quickly became less enchanted with "Slobo."

Night in downtown Nis these days is forlorn in the way of a traveling carnival: lights, but no splendor; a gritty whirl of cafes and the scent of popcorn sold in paper bags.

"We in Nis used to be fashionable. We copied Italian fashion and spent holidays in Spain," said a cafe owner who, fearing retribution, asked not to be named. "But once the wars started and the borders closed, we were lost to the outside world and all we could do was copy Belgrade. So we turned to turbo-folk music, guns and the chic of the criminal class."