Menus Subscribe Search
(PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KOLACZAN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

What a Heist in Belgium Just Said about Blood Diamonds

• February 19, 2013 • 5:49 AM

images-1

Only eight to pull this job? Ocean’s eleven woulda’ been impressed.

Last night, eight thieves cut a hole in a security fence at the Brussels, Belgium airport; drove up to a passenger plane bound for Zurich, Switzerland; flashed some guns; and carried away a package from the plane’s baggage hold — a tranche of uncut diamonds worth an estimated $50 million. They never fired a shot, drove out the way they entered, and as of this writing have not been caught. Pretty slick.

Early reactions (this was reported late morning in Europe) focused on people who study airport security, who wonder how eight men with guns pulled right up to a loaded plane, violated an airport security cordon for several minutes, and didn’t set off any alarms.

But a robbery of this size also catches the eyes of people who study the illegal diamond trade. A decade ago, concern over so-called “blood diamonds,” which are diamonds mined in conflict zones, led to industry participation in a regulatory process designed to clarify a precious stone’s place of origin. The goal was to make it harder to use illegal diamond sales to finance armed conflicts.

In effect since 2003, the Kimberley Process is a voluntary system that combines compliance from industry, government, and non-government monitors.  The Brussels airport diamonds should fall under the Kimberly Process rules, which cover “rough” or uncut diamonds, not finished ones. The stolen diamonds were rough.

“If they were going from Belgium to Switzerland, and they were rough, they would have needed a Kimberley certificate,” said Annie Dunneback of Global Witness, a London-based human rights organization that was a prime mover behind the Kimberley rules. The group was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, the year the rules went into effect. (They didn’t win. Shirin Ebadi did).

But ten years on, the Kimberly Process isn’t what it was, Dunneback said. Any band of thieves that thinks it’s worth the risk to steal $50 million in raw diamonds is flouting more than airport security. “Certainly if [the diamonds] are rough, that’s a pretty big question mark over the Kimberley Process. How to make that quantity of diamonds disappear?” In theory, the Kimberley regulations would make fencing stones from a famous heist difficult. And yet, the gang was confident enough to go through with it.

Dunneback says that if Belgian police don’t manage to recover the diamonds, the most likely way to fence them is through the world’s main hub for polishing precious stones, India, by way of middlemen in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. Though that route includes participants in the Kimberley rules, the diamond industry largely polices itself in those markets, and the international convention doesn’t work well.

“What we’ve found in the research we’ve done,” she claimed, “is there are some connections there [between illegal dealers in India and suppliers in the Gulf states], and oversight is industry-driven. Which is to say there isn’t any.”

If true, that means this morning’s robbery would be a black eye for the Kimberley regime. “I’m sure there will be discussions about this for the next six months,” she said. After helping create the process, Global Witness is now a critic, it should be said. In 2011, the group quit the system—a system it set up—over complaints that it had been captured by the industry it was designed to regulate.

This is the second major diamond heist in Europe in two years. In 2011, a gang of armed men dressed in women’s clothing stuck-up a Paris jewelry shop in broad daylight, getting away with more than $100 million in precious stones. The stolen rocks in that case were finished jewelry, not raw diamonds, so not subject to the Kimberley rules. The last major diamond robbery in Belgium was in 2003, the year the Kimberley rules went into effect. Thieves got away with more than $100 million that time too. Some of those stones were raw. They were never recovered and the perpetrators never caught.

Update: The scene of the crime has now been confirmed to be Brussels airport, last night; we’ve amended the post to reflect that. Some European reports are claiming the thieves’ take to be as high as $350 million. Belgian police have not confirmed that.

Marc Herman

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.