Snowfall in Bali

Dozens of surfers currently sit in Bali's notorious Kerobokan Prison awaiting execution on drug-related charges. Here are their cautionary tales.

The siren song of Balinese surf has seen many surfers bend the rules to get there. Photo: Borghi
The siren song of Balinese surf has seen many surfers bend the rules to get there. Photo: Borghi

Originally published in our May issue.

In 2003, a South American surfer attempted to smuggle two and a half kilos of cocaine from Peru to the surfing Mecca of Bali in his surfboards. The payoff from the run could sustain his idyllic lifestyle for months on the island. Instead, he sits on death row awaiting execution. And he’s not alone. Many surfers have been lured into trafficking drugs to Bali—a quick trip in exchange for endless perfect barrels with cash to burn. Author Kathryn Bonella spent years interviewing inmates in Bali’s Kerobokan Prison for her recent book Snowing in Bali. Here she recounts their cautionary tales:

Brazilian surfer Renato steered his motorcycle through the crowded streets of Canggu. He was on his way to meet a Balinese taxi driver whom he’d paid to collect a couriered package—a backpack loaded with nearly 1 kilogram of cocaine. It was the type of pickup Renato had performed many times without incident, but at this handoff on that sultry afternoon last June, his freewheeling life in paradise disintegrated. Police, dressed as surfers, burst from behind the gates. He wheeled his bike around, trying to escape, but a cop grabbed his shirt and put a gun to his back. He accelerated. The cop fired a shot into the air. The surfer revved harder. Then it was over. Renato was struck on the back of the head with the butt of a gun.

Renato regained consciousness in his bathroom where the cops had handcuffed him to a shower pipe. They were in the process of ransacking the two-story home he’d recently leased using drug money. His girlfriend, the gardener, and the maid were also locked in the bathroom as the cops searched his phone, his computer, and his photos for details on other dealers. They tore the place apart looking for more drugs.

For the next few days the cops lived in Renato’s house, walking around in his floral boardshorts, floating in the swimming pool on his surfboards, drinking beers they’d bought with cash from his safe, and watching sport on his new plasma TV. Renato, his girlfriend, and staff remained captive in the bathroom. Intermittently, he was un-cuffed from the shower pipe for questioning: “Who sent the cocaine?” “Who do you work with?” “Who are you going to sell to?” When he refused to talk, he was beaten. Cops questioned the others too, even hitting the uncooperative gardener in the face and giving him a black eye.

The news spread fast. Another Brazilian expat who lived across the street had watched the bust through his window and quickly made phone calls. Panic set in among the surfers who’d worked with Renato. The bigger dealers fled the island—it wasn’t worth gambling on Renato’s silence.

The police flew Renato to Jakarta, but even after he was gone, they continued to question the extensive circle of surfers he’d come to know. While most evaded the police, one of his Singaporean business partners agreed to be interviewed. When he arrived to meet the cops at a Canggu beachfront café, he watched in disbelief as one of the policemen pulled up in Renato’s new car, with Renato’s stash of surfboards piled up beside him. While Renato used his powerful contacts in Bali to retrieve most of his belongings the cops had taken, they would be useless to him in prison.