Daring Heist Spreads Fear

By Marc Perelman

Published April 18, 2003, issue of April 18, 2003.
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ANTWERP — All hell broke loose on Jews here in mid-February. It was not antisemitism. It was not Iraq. It was merely the largest robbery to hit this Belgian port city in decades.

Armed robberies are not usually issues that preoccupy Jewish communal defense experts. The problem this time was that the daring, $120 million robbery took place in the main building of this city’s vibrant diamond district.

And in Antwerp, while Indians and Georgians have made their mark in the industry in recent years, diamonds still equal Jews.

M. is a young Jewish diamond dealer. Since he set up shop five years ago, he has had to fight his way up in a depressed market. It was a daily struggle, but things were slowly brightening as he was starting to make a name for himself.

On that fateful Monday morning, like every Monday just before beginning his workweek, he was having coffee with his father in the diamond district. A friend passed by, complaining about the traffic caused by the police checkpoints.

M. jumped from his chair. “What police? Where?” he asked worriedly.

“In front of the Diamond Center,” the friend replied.

“But this is where I work!” M. shouted, leaving his coffee, his father and his friend and rushing toward 9-11 Schupstraat, where dozens of diamond dealers work.

When he arrived at the scene, police cars and barricades were ringing the red brick building. M. went to an officer and asked him what happened.

“A robbery over the weekend, big time,” the officer snapped.

M. then made his way inside and immediately went to the basement, where the dealers keep their gems and their cash in a high-security room.

His safe was open and empty. Four years’ worth of hard work were gone.

Half of the 120 safes had been opened cleanly. The police estimate that around $120 million worth of rocks was stolen.

The robbers operated during Valentine’s Day weekend, neutralizing the alarm systems, replacing the footage of the surveillance cameras and, most astonishingly, opening the safes without destroying them. The robbers’ perfect knowledge of the building has fueled suspicion that the building’s security officers were complicit in the heist.

This is not the first blow to Antwerp’s Jewish diamond community. Last year, a bank where most of the dealers were keeping their savings went bankrupt. Since much of the business is done informally, many of the claimants had no legal means to sue the bank and get their money back.

Just a few weeks before the holdup, news surfaced that one of the five insurance brokers for the diamond industry had been drafting false contracts.

But this was the final straw. A diamond dealer only has two things to work with — gems and cash. When both are gone, there is nothing left except a combustible mixture of emptiness and rage.

“I basically don’t know what I should do when I am in the office,” M. said. “I just have nothing to work with. Should I start all over again or go and open a bar? I frankly don’t know. I am still young, and I didn’t have a fortune in there, but I can tell you some big guys lost big, big, big time. You see their faces: They are just groggy; their eyes are just empty, dead.”

Jews came to Antwerp when the diamond trade moved here from Amsterdam following a crackdown after World War II by the Dutch government on the industry’s highly informal activities. Belgium was eager to look the other way and welcome diamonds and Jews, not out of generosity, but because the diamond industry meant big money; the diamond trade amounts to 7% of the country’s gross domestic product. As a result, diamond dealers pay barely any taxes, and the government does not bother them.

However, this cozy concordat has changed in the past decade, partly because of demands from the European Union on Belgium to clean up its act and partly because several large scandals have prompted the government to act. Moreover, Antwerp is not the dominant diamond center it once was, with New Delhi, Moscow, Tel Aviv and New York all making inroads. Finally, the outlook for the diamond industry has been grim in recent years because of the successive economic crises in Asia and America.

In the days following the robbery, M. was glued to the television, radio and Internet. The story was grabbing headlines in Belgium, and even in neighboring France and the Netherlands.

When the police announced a few days later that they had arrested four suspects, M. was ecstatic. The prime suspect, an Italian man who had been renting space in the building since November 2000 and had vanished with his wife immediately after the heist, inexplicably came back to Antwerp five days after the robbery.

The police recovered 14 garbage bags full of material used for the heist, as well as travel documents and videos alongside a highway after the heist. The couple’s fingerprints were found on the materials.

M.’s hopes, however, were quickly dampened. Interrogations of the suspects didn’t yield information about their bosses or the location of the goods. The police believe the Italian mafia masterminded the heist and that the merchandise has already been sold in unregulated markets in Russia, the Middle East or South America.

M. realizes that the odds of seeing his stones again are very low.

“I can’t help thinking about it, but I know I have to set my mind on the future in order not to drive myself crazy,” he said.

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