Blood feuds in Albania exploited by criminal groups.

The custom of blood feuds is still present in parts of northern Albania such as Shkodra, pictured above.

The custom of blood feuds is still present in parts of northern Albania such as Shkodra, pictured above.

Photo: Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Albanian society is sometimes portrayed as violent because of its harsh cultural norms like the blood feud. This custom dates back to the 15th century and is known as the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini.1 As in other mountainous and remote communities (such as Montenegro, Kosovo or parts of the Caucasus), this practice developed as a way of protecting families in the absence of a strong central state.2 The fear of reciprocity was designed to be a deterrent against acts of violence: one risked triggering a tit-for-tat spiral of revenge by taking someone’s life.3

Unlike the notion of an ‘eye for an eye’, blood feuds do not necessarily stop at a single act of retribution but may carry on for generations until there are no male family members remaining on either side.4 This custom was designed to prevent chaos, not to cause it. It was effectively an early version of a mutually assured destruction pact, closely linked to the values of honour and the family.5

The instrumentalization of blood feuds

Today, the idea of a blood feud is part of the fear factor of Albanian criminal groups. It helps their image to be seen as potential dispensers of violence – hunting down their opponents and taking revenge.6 It also puts a gloss of customary or traditional norms on their violent behaviour.7 That said, criminal groups do not tend to recruit people connected to families involved in blood feuds since they do not want to be drawn into these protracted disputes.8 They are also wary of taking on powerful families in areas of the north of Albania because of the risk of triggering a blood feud: it’s bad for business.9

However, recent research has shown that sometimes criminal groups apply their own version of a blood feud.10 According to the Kanun, you cannot take revenge for a family member who is killed while committing an immoral act (e.g., while stealing property). However, organized crime sometimes misuses the Kanun to exact revenge: there have been cases when an organized crime group is unable to find an opponent and instead kills one of the person’s family members, justifying it as blood feud. In this situation, the family members of the victim often go into hiding or emigrate in fear of further retaliation from the organized crime group.11

For example, in the turf war between two powerful organized crime groups in the city of Shkodra,12 leaders of criminal group A killed a key member of criminal group B. In retaliation, the leaders of criminal group B, when they were unable to locate members of criminal group A, instead killed the father and uncle of one of the key members of that group. Now, that person considers the murder of his family members as a blood feud and will therefore try to kill family members of the leaders of criminal group B. In other words, even if the criminal groups could end the conflict between them, the cycle of violence will continue. As a result, what started as a revenge killing related to a criminal act (which may have been falsely depicted as a blood feud) has become a real blood feud.13

Another blurring of the line between assassinations and blood feuds is related to drug trafficking. It occurs when disputes from abroad are settled in Albania or when blood feuds that started in Albania are exported abroad. For instance, relatives of members of criminal organizations are seeking asylum in EU countries in order to evade the threat of retaliation. According to a 2017 report from Operazione Colomba, these are credible threats. From 2013 to 2017, it reported that blood feud murders were committed in the following countries: 11 in Italy, four in Greece and two each in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as one each in Kosovo, Montenegro, the UK, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada and the US.14 However, it should be noted that criminal groups generally prefer not to expose themselves abroad and therefore continue the vendetta or blood feud in Albania.

But the lines are blurred. Is every revenge killing between criminal groups a blood feud in the tradition of the Kanun, or is it merely the ‘normal’ spiral of violence between mafia groups? Are all killings ostensibly related to blood feuds connected to organized crime or do some reflect the settling of scores between families?

The scope of the problem

Between 1991 and 2008, at least 9 500 people were killed as the result of blood feuds. In the same period, almost 1 000 children were virtually imprisoned in their homes for protection as a result of ongoing blood feuds.15 However, the practice seems to be declining. According to a report from 2018, the problem is mostly concentrated in the Shkodra district in northern Albania.16 The data shows that at the national level, 704 families are engaged in blood feud, 113 of which have moved abroad. The high number of families in areas where blood feud is not culturally entrenched (i.e., in Tirana and Durres) can be explained by the fact that families have moved to these areas from the north of the country, bringing the feuds with them.

It is not only criminals that abuse the reputation of the blood feud for their own ends. Citing a fear of retribution because of blood feuds has long been used as grounds for seeking asylum. In some cases, families even obtained fake attestation letters to support their claims.17 The situation changed after several individuals were arrested and the law was modified in 2014 to only allow prosecution offices to issue such certificates. Furthermore, a number of host countries (France, Belgium and Sweden, among others) now also ask Albanian authorities to verify the certificates. In case the certificates are forged or not based on facts, the persons responsible will be criminally investigated by Albanian authorities.

  Tirana Durres Lezha Dibra Kukes Shkodra Total
Families in blood feud 68 86 105 89 87 156 591
Isolated 5 6 6 - 3 17 37
Families overseas 8 6 33 3 16 47 113

Figure 2 Number of families affected by blood feud at the national level, 2018.

NGO working with affected families in Shkodra.

In addition, between 2012 and 2016 the government took steps to criminalize and ensure heavy penalties for blood feud-related offences. For example, pursuant to Article 78/a of the Criminal Code, the offence of ‘murder for blood feud’ is punishable by at least 30 years imprisonment.18 Article 83/a specifies that a ‘serious threat of retaliation or blood revenge, against a person [obliged to be] locked up at home, shall be punished by up to three years’ imprisonment’. In addition, under Article 83/b, ‘incitement to blood feud’, which covers inducing others to engage in a vendetta or blood feud, when it does not constitute another criminal offence, is punishable by imprisonment of up to three years. All these legal amendments to the Criminal Code entered into force in 2013.

The government also prepared an action plan ‘on the prevention, detection, documentation and crackdown on criminal activity against criminal offenses of murder committed for motives of blood feuds and revenge’.19 The state police were tasked with preparing a strategy for implementing this action plan in 2017.20 Some of the action points called for the state police to collect evidence on families engaged in blood feud, monitor the affected families and update the database of ongoing cases. Moreover, all children affected by blood feud were to be provided with education at home. In addition, the Parliament adopted a resolution in 2015 to prevent the phenomenon of blood feuds in Albania.21 However, the Ombudsman reported later that year that after the resolution, ‘no concrete solution has been made by state institutions to implement the tasks set by the Parliament to prevent this phenomenon and to issue bylaws’.22 In its 2018 progress report, the EU noted that ‘the resolution and recommendations on blood feuds still require follow-up’.23

In the meantime, there has been an increase in the number of registered cases of murder for blood feud from 2017 to 2020. From five registered cases in 2017, the number increased to seven in 2020. However, the conviction rate for those accused of this crime has declined. Only one of the five cases registered for investigation in 2017 resulted in a guilty verdict. Of the seven cases registered in 2020, only one was sent to court; the defendant was found not guilty. Similarly, only one of the four cases registered for ‘incitement to blood feud’ in 2020 was sent to court.24 From 2017 to 2020, the highest number of cases of incitement registered in one year was 11 cases in 2018. Only one of these was sent to the court, where it resulted in a guilty verdict.25

Blood feud is still a phenomenon in Albania, albeit mainly limited to the north of the country. Its practice remains shrouded in a degree of secrecy and mystery. More detailed research is required to get a clear picture of the situation, and to be able to estimate the extent and the spillover effect to family members of the victims both in Albania and overseas.

What is clear is that current state policies are insufficient to uproot the phenomenon. While protection is provided to the victims, trust in the justice system is low. This impedes the necessary cooperation between the community and relevant state agencies. If blood feuds developed in environments where the rule of law was weak, a more effective criminal justice system would reduce the validity of this pretext for violence.


  1. Leonard Fox, Kanuni I Lekë Dukagjini. New York: Gjonlekaj Publishing Company, 1989. 

  2. Tanya Mangalakova, The Kanun, the present day Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro, International Centre for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations (IMIR), 2004,

  3. Arben Cara and Mimoza Margjeka, Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, Customary law of Northern Albania, European Scientific Journal, 2015, 174-186. 

  4. Margaret Hasluck, The Unwritten Law in Albania. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1954. 

  5. Mirjona Sadiku, A Tradition of honor, hospitality and blood feuds: Exploring the Kanun customary law in contemporary Albania, Balkan Social Science Review, 2014, 3, 93–113. 

  6. Sandra F Joireman, Aiming for certainty: the Kanun, blood feuds and the ascertainment of customary law, The Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law, 2014, 46, 2, 235–248. 

  7. Vincenzo Mattei, Albania: The dark shadow of tradition and blood feuds, an ancient code of retaliation is forcing generations of Albanians into their own private prisons, Al Jazeera, 14 May 2016,

  8. Fabian Zhilla, Organised crime and judicial corruption: Are customary norms playing any role?, Journal of Financial Crime, 18, 4, 387–404. 

  9. Ibid. 

  10. Andrew Hosken and Albana Kasapi, The children trapped by Albania’s blood feuds, BBC radio 4, 12 November 2017,

  11. Interviews conducted with anonymous source, November 2021, Shkodra. 

  12. Si nisen perplasjet e fiseve Bajri- Lici qe solli 8 te vrare ne 15 muaj, Panorama, 29 April 2019,

  13. Fabian Zhilla, Organised crime and judicial corruption: Are customary norms playing any role?, Journal of Financial Crime, 18, 4, 387–404. 

  14. Operazione Colomba, Descriptive document on the phenomenon of ‘hakmarrja’ and ‘gjakmarrja’ to raise awareness among albanian and international institutions (3rd edition), December 2017,; See

  15. Dan Bilefsky, In Albanian feuds, isolation engulfs families, New York Times, 10 July 2008,

  16. Operazione Colomba, Descriptive document on the phenomenon of ‘hakmarrja’ and ‘gjakmarrja’ to raise awareness among albanian and international institutions (3rd edition), December 2017,

  17. In 2014, the Chair of the National Assembly of Missionaries of Nationwide Reconciliation, in Durres, Ndrec Prenga and two others were arrested for issuing fake attestation for €4 000. Katër mijë euro është pazari për një dokument gjakmarrje, Gazeta Shqip, 21 February 2014,

  18. Albanian Criminal Code, available at:

  19. National Action Plan no. 1277 on the prevention, tracking and fighting criminal acts of murder motivated by blood feuds, 24 October 2012. 

  20. See mid-term report of Albania on the implementation of the recommendations received during the second cycle of Universal Periodic Review, March 2017, 8. 

  21. Resolution on Prevention of blood feud, Assembly of Albania, 5 March 2015,

  22. Special Report of Ombudsman, Mbi Fenomenin e Gjakmarrjes në Shqipëri, December 2015,

  23. Albania 2018 report, EU Commission Staff Working Document SWD (2018) 151 final, 17 April 2018, 26,

  24. Report on the Status of Crime in 2020, General Prosecution Office,

  25. Report on the Status of Crime in 2018, General Prosecution Office,