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A Tale of Two Diamond Heists

Stolen diamonds may leave Zimbabwe on this plane

We’d like to discuss two recent diamond heists – both outrageous, both similar in some coincidental details, but each causing a very different world reaction.


The first one happened a few weeks ago in Belgium. Eight thieves wearing police uniforms burst through a fence at the Brussels airport, just as a Swiss passenger plane was being loaded with a cargo of diamonds. Driving two black vehicles that flashed blue police lights, the thieves raced up the runway. When they got to the plane, they waved submachine guns at ground workers and the pilot. Within 15 minutes they had stolen 120 packages of rough diamonds worth $50 million.


The second diamond heist, which is more of an ongoing theft, has been taking place in Zimbabwe. Corrupt government officials and businessmen have been stealing hundreds of millions of dollars in rough diamonds from Zimbabwe’s valuable Marange diamond fields. Every month, according to a new report by the group 100Reporters.org, a luxurious private Airbus plane takes off from the airport in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. The plane transports many of the leading figures in Zimbabwe’s diamond trade – and also, it is believed, millions of dollars in stolen diamonds.


The plane is the perfect getaway vehicle. It travels quickly around the world – stops have included Hong Kong, Singapore, Angola, and Tanzania – and it is rarely, if ever, subject to customs inspections.


Comparing the Crimes


These two crimes share some superficial similarities. Both involve the theft of rough diamonds at airports. Both could be called “inside jobs.” At the Brussels airport, the thieves had to know exactly when the diamonds would be loaded onto the plane in order to show up precisely at the right moment. At the Harare airport, the people stealing diamonds are the ultimate insiders. They are the same corrupt businessmen and government officials who control diamond mining in Zimbabwe.


We should point out, as well, that both crimes are symptoms of an underlying problem: the international diamond trade continues to be poorly regulated. One of the  main reasons why thieves still steal diamonds is that it remains easy to re-sell them for a good price. Until the international diamond trade becomes much more transparent and regulated, diamond thieves will do quite well for themselves.


But back to comparing our diamond heists – what is interesting, we think, is that is that the international reaction has been so different. When the thieves stole the diamonds in Belgium, the story became a top international news item. The New York Times, Bloomberg, ABC News, the Associated Press, and many other news sources in the United States and other countries all filed stories. Additionally, the Kimberley Process, the international diamond certification scheme, sprung into action. On February 22, it issued an alert that warns the world to “remain vigilant” and keep an eye out for the stolen diamonds.


In contrast, although the theft of diamonds in Zimbabwe has received some press coverage, the issue has never made much of a media splash. Nor has the Kimberley Process issued a formal alert to warn the world that Zimbabwean diamonds are being stolen on a massive scale. Indeed, the Kimberley Process, after briefly banning Zimbabwean diamonds between 2009 and 2011 due to violence in the Marange diamond fields, has basically decided to ignore the fact that Zimbabwe’s diamonds are being stolen.


Explaining the Different Reactions


Why does one diamond theft receive a swift international reaction while another gets mostly ignored?


Maybe the best explanation is that the diamond theft in Brussels was more dramatic. It was quick, creative, well-executed, and totally unexpected.  “This diamond heist is being called spectacular, daring, and clinical – something straight out of Ocean’s 13,” began the story that ran on ABC’s evening news broadcast, going on to briefly show clips from the movie.


The theft in Harare, on the other hand, seems to have almost lulled the international community to sleep. Perhaps the theft is so obvious and so regular and has been going on for so long, that every time a plane takes off from Zimbabwe loaded with stolen diamonds, nobody thinks of it as news. As early as 2010, evidence began to surface that Zimbabwean government officials were smuggling diamonds by plane.


Another possibility, sadly, is that the world has different expectations for different parts of the world. When $50 million in diamonds is stolen in Belgium, the press and the diamond industry all react. However, when an African dictator steals hundreds of millions of dollars – or even $2 billion in diamonds by one estimate – the theft is thought of as normal.


A Fairer Response


The Brussels diamond heist absolutely should be investigated and punished. But the paradox here is that the Brussels heist is getting all the attention, even though the Harare heist is actually far more serious. Not only is the amount of the theft much larger, but it is an ongoing problem – the theft has yet to be stopped. Furthermore, the money being lost comes directly out of the pockets of the Zimbabwean people, who are among the world’s poorest and badly need their government to make investments in health, education, and infrastructure.


In addition, it is believed that much of the profit from the stolen diamonds is helping to fund Robert Mugabe’s oppressive secret police. Some observers fear that the secret police will prevent Zimbabweans from voting freely when they go to the polls in the next presidential election, scheduled for later this year.


The Kimberley Process’s reaction to the Brussels theft – but silence on the Harare theft – reveals just how misplaced its priorities are. We urge the Kimberley Process to treat the theft in Zimbabwe at least as seriously as it is treating the theft in Belgium. In the very least, the governments that participate in the Kimberley Process should not be allowing the private Airbus plane to land in cities around the world without inspecting its passengers and cargo.


We also believe that the diamond industry needs to move much more quickly to devise a system in which every diamond is fully traceable and ethically-sourced – much like the diamonds we offer. When it no longer is acceptable to sell a diamond without transparent and ethical origins, diamond heists will become a lot less common – whether they occur at an airport in Zimbabwe or one in Belgium.



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