Sudden riches in a closed community

In 1991, a young academic went up to the mountain villages of Mylopotamos. Aris Tsantiropoulos wanted to know what was behind the high level of lawlessness. By studying the custom of the vendetta, he explored relationships and values and how the human geography of the area had developed. For months, he stayed in the village of Livadia, near Zoniana, trying to understand «kozi,» what it meant and how it had degenerated. The kozi is the strong card in the deck, and metaphorically denotes one’s prestige in the local community. This study, added to over the years, became a dissertation: «The Development of the Vendetta in Mountain Crete,» which was recently published by Plethron. The distorted meanings that inhabitants of Mylopotamos now ascribe to many old customs are the outcome of a process that started more than 30 years go. That was when organized tourism took over. Overnight, people went from being stock farmers to hoteliers, mainly on the northern coast. And they soon became very rich. Those who stayed behind were hemmed in because the neighboring villages of Anogeia and Livadia had the lion’s share of grazing land. That prompted hostility with their neighbors, which played a large part in isolating the community and in strengthening the close bonds of its members. The first outlet came through politics. Zoniana has many disadvantages but one big advantage: It has the highest birthrate in Europe. Around 2,500 people from Zoniana live in Athens and another 1,500 in Iraklion, Crete. They have not emulated the lawlessness of their compatriots, and they have excelled in many fields. The problem has not arisen from the nature of the people of Zoniana, nor did it start with cannabis. Massive subsidies A little research into subsidies for oil, sultanas and animal fodder is revealing. Most of the money goes to the district of Mylopotamos, where people from Zoniana use political connections to secure subsidies for nonexistent products. Officials at the Agriculture Directorate of Rethymon say the numbers of stock animals declared are similar to those in Belgium. That was just the beginning. A sense of complicity was cultivated and strengthened by the forming of family ties with those involved. Feeling sure of support, the villagers of Zoniania took another step. Since 1991, they have refused veterinarians and agriculturalists access to the village for inspections, yet the subsidies are paid as normal. In 1998-2002 alone, Mylopotamos received subsidies equivalent to 180 million euros, while 600 young farmers received another 10 million euros. «This year,» said former Rethymnon Mayor Manolis Litinas, «even a taxi driver from Zoniana, who lives in a big city outside Crete, received an equalization and stock farming subsidy.» The tolerance showed by the state, which had built up in the 1990s, became even more apparent in the following decade, when the residents of Zoniana moved on to cannabis. The crop has been grown on Crete since the 19th century but the mountain communities of Psiloritis used to look down on users of cannabis. Yet some people in the village took advantage of the ban on access to state employees and planted the first cannabis crops. The money was good, given that 1,000 seedlings produce 2.5 metric tons with a market value of 500,000 euros. Part of the profits was invested in the traditional sport of guns. Isolation The village changed. There was unprecedented wealth, but Zoniana, due to its isolation, was still caught up in pre-urban times. Girls married at the age of 15 to someone their father had chosen. Many of them were grandmothers by the age of 35, a phase many of their contemporaries elsewhere take 60-70 years to reach, as Tsantiropoulos notes. The boys «marry» their 4x4s; seven out of 10 vehicles in the village are powerful, luxury model 4x4s, many of them without license plates. Boys as young as 14 drive 4x4s to junior high school in Anogeia. In a quarrel with a pupil from Anogeia, a boy from Zoniana pulled a gun and shot the other boy in the head. The people of Anogeia protested, demanding that nobody from Zoniana attend their junior high school, and the minister accepted their demand. The isolation grew, and with it the sense of solidarity. By 1995, Zoniana had developed its own form of crop insurance. Any crops uprooted by the police were insured and owners received compensation. Social cohesion was based on the distribution of wealth within the community. And that made for complicity. Extravagant gifts were exchanged. Locals visited people who were in hospital and left them money, lots of it. Then the Zoniana bullet-seller started appearing at weddings in Mylopotamos. From a 4×4, he would sell ammunition and rent firearms to wedding guests. You had no prestige if you didn’t fire off at least 5,000 shots. But politicians who attended such events simply dismissed them as local color. «Just look at those [bullet-scarred] electricity poles,» said Constantine Mitsotakis when he visited Rethymnon as prime minister. Production grew and Zoniana needed networks abroad and at home. Every other day, vehicles from Zoniana sold 4 kilos of cannabis resin in Iraklion. Impunity and tolerance opened up new spheres of action. The police were demonstrably involved. «Information would be given to the police, but the inspection would be made two or three days after the residents of Zoniana had been warned,» claims Litinas. Then Zoniana got into the protection racket. Men of 25 who had grown up seeing the cannabis tolerated, often visited major towns in Crete, heavily armed, seeking kozi, but from bravado. Many businesspeople accepted their protection and cemented the relationship by cultivating family ties. That entanglement gradually tainted the Cretan economy. Then along came cocaine. When Dutch dealers were unable to pay for the entire Zoniana crop in cash, they paid for part of it in cocaine (which is very cheap in the Netherlands). The first victims were from Zoniana itself; the village acquired a drug culture and even more money. Local society divided into three concentric circles. The first was the closed circle of crime, the second collaborated with the first, and the third was one of silence and complicity forged by gifts (and fear). At the same time, kozi took off in the form of massive tips at nightclubs and dice games with 10,000 euros at stake, as well as in the display of firearms. Youths from Zoniana grew up admiring the kozi of their fathers and friends. Then things turned sour. Thefts of ATMs in Iraklion by men from Zoniana and a new wave of crime that the villagers themselves could no control were the final straw. Sources say that Rethymnon police officials issued the ultimatum: «This far and no further,» a few weeks ago, in a meeting with politicians. On the eve of the recent police raid, the new dimensions of the problem were apparent. Some in Zoniana had gone independent and would no longer keep the agreement they had made with the police to allow a formal inquiry. The situation was out of control. When there is nobody reliable to talk to, the system reacts. That’s what is happening at the moment in Zoniana.