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.

It's waves like this that draw surfers to Bali—and compel some to find any way possible to stay. Photo: Lowe-White

Such was the experience of South American Alberto, who’d come to Bali chasing waves, then over-stayed his visa by months, racking up huge debts. When a Peruvian coke boss he met at a nightclub offered to pay his bills and give him cash to burn if he did a drug run, he jumped at the chance.

“It meant going to Peru, picking up a bag of cocaine, and returning to Bali,” he recalls. “I did it because I realized there were a lot of people doing this, and I needed the money, so I took my chance. I crossed the globe, picked up this bag with 2 and a half kilos, put it on my back, and headed back.”

Anxiety-riddled, he sat on the edge of his seat for the entire 48 hours. Every lingering stare or minor hiccup was amplified into a potential death sentence. When his name was called over the loudspeakers during a transit stop at Buenos Aires Airport, he was sure that life as he knew it was over.

“I thought, ‘This is it. I’m gone. Oh fuck, they’ve found it for sure,’” he says. “My heart was banging. I was looking everywhere for somewhere to run. Then I thought, ‘I’m going to just play dumb.’ I made up a quick story in my head: ‘I exchanged my surfboard for this bag with a guy, Pablo, and I didn’t know the shit was there.’ I would stick with the story to the end.”

As he flashed his boarding pass to re-board the plane, he expected the police to pounce. “I was getting mentally ready to be tortured,” he recalls. “I’d heard that’s what they do. I was just waiting for the Federal Police to come. Then the stewardess came and said, ‘Oh, excuse me, are you Mr. Lopez? We have a little problem, we overbooked the plane, and sold your seat to a family traveling together, so would you mind if we moved you to business class?’ I was thinking, ‘Thank you, God, I’m never ever going to do this again.’”

When he finally arrived in Bali and walked out into the blazing sun, he was ecstatic. But for him, even that rush and the promise of quick cash, wasn’t worth the risk of trafficking through airports. Instead, he used his new contacts to begin a shiny new career as a freelance agent for anyone with drugs to sell—from random surfers with a bag of coke to Indonesia’s biggest players. He quickly got a name, and got busy.

Being in Bali allowed him to use the thousands of hotel rooms as dispensaries. He’d often rent one to stash the drugs and another to do the deal, a tactic used by most Western dealers. Sometimes they’d even ask hotel receptionists to unwittingly hold a bag of drugs in storage for a few days. Sometimes, the night before a job, he’d hire two cars and park one in a shopping center parking lot. The next day he’d drive the other car into the lot with the cocaine in his car door, then switch cars and change his sunglasses, clothes, and hat before driving out. If cops had been watching, they’d be still waiting for him to drive out, long after he’d done the deal.

“There was a glamorous side to this business,” he says. “You’d feel very important; there was all this fantasy surrounding it. There was a time I could say, ‘If you snorted coke here in Bali, there was a 50 percent chance it would have come through my hands. We had that much here, and we had the best quality. A lot of people made millions through my hands. Whenever I was going to do business, I would become a completely different person, like James Bond or whatever. I would do that secret-agent thing until the deal was done, then go back to my normal life as a surfer, just cruise and surf. I had parallel lives.”