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.

A Customs officer finds 6 kilograms in Rodrigo Gularte's boards in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: AP/Dita Alangkara

Soon after the 1971 film Morning of the Earth first revealed the transparent-blue perfection of Uluwatu, surfers the world over began venturing to this newly discovered warm-water oasis, returning home with their own tales of long, perfect, empty waves. Word spread fast. In the ensuing decades, hotels, stores, and restaurants popped up to cater to the thousands of surfers making the pilgrimage to Bali. A surfer could arrive with surfboards and some cash and stay in the finest hotels, eat decadent meals, enjoy long massages, and surf the best waves on the planet for an entire week on little more than they’d pay for a few bags of groceries back home. Today, Bali is more popular than ever. Conservative estimates put Indonesia’s annual surf tourist population at nearly a quarter of a million people each year. And for good reason—there are few places a surfer can enjoy the world’s best waves all day, and if they’re interested, one of the best nightlife’s in the world. It’s become a tropical paradise where any hedonistic pleasure can be satisfied—legal or otherwise. Although Indonesia is notorious for having some of world’s harshest anti-drug laws, it’s widely known that the nightclubs are teeming with dealers, ready to make a quick buck on tourists out to have a good time.

Since the 1980s South American surfers have smuggled cocaine to the island, alternating methods depending on which was not being closely scrutinized by authorities. Paying a surfboard shaper $5,000 to embed coke into a board was the preferred method until 1994. That year, a surfer named Frank de Castro Diaz was arrested at Bali’s Denpasar Airport with 4.3 kilos of cocaine hidden inside two of his surfboards. He’d created suspicion by also carrying a saw to cut open the boards. His publicized arrest exposed and temporarily halted that popular method of carrying drugs to the island.

But Bali is an ideal tourist gateway from South America to Asia, where drug traffickers can carry surfboard bags or sports equipment and blend in among the ever-increasing number of real tourists—2.9 million last year. But the expat and tourist markets in Bali are only part of the equation; the real cash comes as the cocaine makes its way further to Japan or Australia, where it maintains the highest price tags on the planet.

The cocaine trafficked to Bali by the western dealers like Renato is usually pure, coming directly from South America. Every border it crosses, it jumps in price. In the cocaine-producing countries of Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia it costs about $1,000 to $2,000 per kilogram. Across the border in Brazil it costs around $5,000, and by the time it reaches Bali it fetches anything from $20,000 to $90,000, depending on how much it is “snowing”—that is, how much coke is on the island. Recently, after a couple of big busts, the price briefly shot to around $300,000 per kilogram.

Part of the reason there are so many surfers incarcerated in Indonesia’s prisons is because surfers are ideal candidates to run drugs to the islands. The Bali bosses mostly use runners who are well traveled, good-looking, multi-lingual, and sporty. Details are everything, and the slightest oversight can result in dire consequences. Brazilian mule Luis Alberto Faria Cafiero, 27, departed Sao Paulo for Bali in 2003, carrying a large surfboard bag. Cafiero’s pale complexion immediately caused Customs officials to be suspicious—no surfer would possess such pallor. They did a full search, and found 7 kilos of cocaine hidden between his two surfboards. “He did not look like a person who’s always out on the beach,” Federal police officer Isaias Santos Vilela told the media.

Despite the huge risks, there’s no shortage of drug bosses and willing runners. After all, it’s a business that seemingly puts the dream within reach: surf all day and party with hot babes on vacation all night—often in plush villas or five-star hotel suites—while dealing drugs to pay for it all. Surfers are regularly propositioned with the seemingly simple task of taking one round-trip flight in exchange for $10,000—a stipend that would easily allow them to maintain the dream of surfing perfect barrels and never returning to “reality” back home.