Vendetta Victims: People, A Village -- Crete's `Cycle Of Blood' Survives The Centuries

PATIMA, Greece - This is a ghost town in the making.

And here the ghosts have names: the victims of a nearly 5-year-old blood feud that has spilled far beyond this mountain village on Crete. The chain of vengeance - often called a "cycle of blood" - has reminded Greeks that old ways persist in a country struggling to modernize.

"The vendetta is still a way of life to some people. Greece may be becoming more like the rest of Europe on the surface. But mentalities and customs don't change so quickly," said Aristides Tsantiropoulos, a former university professor who researches vendettas on Crete.

On Jan. 5, a gunman took aim from an unfinished building in Athens. The bullets from the Kalashnikov tore into the chest of Yiannis Mouzourakis, 31. Mortally wounded, but clutching the Magnum pistol he always carried, he crawled between two parked cars in a place called Freedom Square. He died a short while later in a hospital.

Vendetta's sixth death

The death of Mouzourakis, who was living under an alias with his two children and pregnant wife, was the sixth attributed to a vendetta that began in May 1994. Mouzourakis' mother was sexually abused and strangled on a road near their village of Patima, about 25 miles southeast of the port of Chania on Crete.

The two attackers, who were jailed, were part of a clan at odds with the Mouzourakis family over land disputes, police said.

Then came a series of killings over the next 13 months. The death toll: one member of the Mouzourakis family and three victims from the rival Dikonimakis clan. The slayings moved from Crete to the Greek mainland and back out to the Aegean island of Mytilene as the feuding families tried to avoid being hunted down, authorities said.

Police investigations of all vendetta slayings are frustrated by the families' and neighbors' usual refusal to cooperate - similar to the vow of silence among Italian mobsters.

A dying village

In Patima, the hub of the current vendetta, the violence is also bleeding life from the village.

Fewer than 10 people remain - a tenth of its population a decade ago. Families involved in the vendetta have scattered. Some moved to other parts of Greece, and there is speculation some children were sent abroad to live with relatives.

An empty tavern stands at the entrance to the village. Most homes are padlocked shut.

"The vendetta killed our village," said an elderly woman. "I look around and want to cry."

The question of why the vendetta culture continues in Crete attracts a range of speculation.

Most theories point to the near-universal devotion to firearms, which are strictly regulated in Greece. Nearly every rural household on Crete has at least one unregistered gun - a custom linked to the many battles of conquest and intercommunal rifts on the island.

Some experts say the long tradition of opposing central authority - dating from centuries of Ottoman rule - feeds the vendetta culture.

Even a former Greek president, Christos Sartzetakis, had fled Crete for northern Greece to escape a vendetta involving relatives.

Police have stepped up patrols around Patima, hoping to intercept one of the main suspects in the blood feud. Airports and ferries also are under surveillance, police said.

"I don't think this is the end," said George Hohalakis, a police officer. "There are too many people out there looking to pay back a killing."