Bali, drugs, money and surfing are for some intrinsically related. Kathryn Bonella knows this better than anyone and will be serialising extracts of her new book Snowing in Bali here on MSW. This best selling author and journalist has spent hundreds of hours inside Bali’s Kerobokan Prison in the course of writing her first two books, No More Tomorrows and Hotel K.
Kathryn gained unprecedented access to Bali’s biggest drug bosses, through connections made while writing Hotel K. Many of the drug dealers had also read Hotel K and liked it, as well as also proving that she wasn’t an undercover cop. The bosses agreed to be interviewed, opening up over months of recorded interviews. Snowing in Bali takes you deep into the world of Bali’s drug underworld; the parties, the orgies with sexy models in luxury villas, the multi-million dollar drug deals and sheer decadence, glamour and cash that most people could only dream of.
This book charts the rise of Bali’s drug bosses, many who first flew to the island to surf and who started trafficking drugs to pay their way. It also charts their crashes to the depths of hell – some sentenced to years in third world jails, some to death by firing squad.
We'll be splitting it into two sections: Getting Started, and When The Music Stops For Bali Drug Dealers.
*The author often uses direct quotes from drug bosses who are talking for the first time about their business. These people are now in jail. Don't do this at home kids.
How Rafael got started
Surfing, sex and cocaine were Rafael’s passions, but the sport of Hawaiian kings had come first. As a child he had natural flair on a board, riding Rio’s waves with grace and agility. The rush of hurtling down a breaking wave quickly had him hooked – the same potent emotions that drug trafficking later induced. But surfing was his first love and the young boy dreamt about one day going to a faraway tropical island called Bali.
When his chance came, typically it involved a girl. Flying home from a surf comp in South Brazil, he flirted with the flight attendant and before hitting the tarmac, he had her number. Soon they were dating and the girl put her hot new boyfriend’s name down to share the airline’s free flights for staff-plus-one to anywhere in the world.
Before long they hit the skies to Bali. Rafael fell in love, but more so with the island than the girl. After a month’s holiday, she flew home alone. The sunshine, palm-fringed beaches and the perfect waves spoke to his heart. This was the faraway island he so often dreamt of as a boy.
At this time, in the late 1990s, the island was the perfect place to start being a drug dealer, or work in other criminal lines that cashed in on cashed-up Bali. Tourism was booming and the underworld was growing as fast as the number of infinity pools.
I was like, ‘Wow, my god, beautiful place and good waves, very good waves.’ I thought, I love this place, I want to stay here.
He quickly met other like-minded westerners, who offered him a golden key to stay in Bali and pay for his dream life. Being a drug runner would be far more lucrative than his first run with a bag of sarongs. He’d taken the colourful fabrics to Rio to sell and flown back to Bali with cash, but quickly ditched the rag runs for coke runs.
It started on the beach. A bunch of surfers and expats from across the globe hung out, played music, danced, and smoked marijuana at a hotel fronting Kuta beach, dubbed ‘the club’. Every afternoon, music blared from speakers, while guys played frescoball on the sand and girls sunbaked topless. Marco, a dark haired, charismatic and wisecracking hang-gliding champion from Rio, barbecued fresh fish and sold top-quality grass he trafficked from Holland, euphemistically trademarked ‘Lemon Juice’.
Marco sold Rafael a small bag of grass for $100, and knew he’d be a perfect mule, or horse as they started calling runners when the word ‘mule’ got too hot. Rafael possessed all the traits to slip invisibly through customs. He was smart, well-travelled, white, western, good looking and a surfer – meaning no cover story needed for frequent trips in and out of Bali with surfboards. Marco, always on the lookout for a new horse, made his pitch on the beach one afternoon.
‘Hey man, what you doing here in Bali to make money?’
‘Not much, selling sarongs,’ Rafael replied.
‘You want to make some real money?’
‘Easy, you fly to Amsterdam, bring marijuana back, and I’ll
pay you $5000.’
Growing up in the cocaine gateway of South America, where drug busts were daily news, meant Rafael knew what the job was, and felt insulted.
‘Come on, man, you think I’m a mule? I just want to buy a bit, and that’s it,’ Rafael snapped.
Marco persisted: ‘Man, you look like a movie star, the cops are never gonna stop you. It’s easy; you can hide the grass inside the surfboard bag. Easy money, little risk – come on, brother.’
Marco’s slick talk didn’t work. Rafael turned him down flat and walked back to his nearby bungalow angry. But it had ignited a spark and for weeks he watched Marco’s horses blithely coming with kilos and leaving with cash. He started selling Lemon Juice, freelancing as one of his many sales people – paying Marco $500 an ounce, and making $100. They soon became good friends, and Rafael saw the intricacies of the game up close. Before long, he decided to give it a shot.
‘Okay, man, let’s go,’ he told Marco on the beach, ‘but I want to invest some cash, be a partner too.’ For Marco that was no problem. It was often how deals were done, with several investors in one run, and at this point it was blue chip. So, in the sun, on the sand, they struck a deal. A few days later, Rafael flew out of Bali to Amsterdam.
I start thinking, ‘Mmm, fuck, I can do this myself. I don’t want to ever carry anymore. Fuck off.’ Then I meet these Peruvian guys in Bali, and then they say, ‘Forget ganja, man, play with coke, it’s much more money.’ – Rafael
At this time, in the late 1990s, the island was the perfect place to start being a drug dealer, or work in other criminal lines that cashed in on cashed-up Bali. Tourism was booming and the underworld was growing as fast as the number of infinity pools. Bali was far from its sanguine, peaceful postcard image. It had turned into a hedonistic haven for drugs and debauchery, becoming a lucrative business island for pimps, hookers, drug dealers, gangs and corrupt cops, police, prosecutors and judges – who were all running rampant.
The Brazilians were the perfect suppliers of cocaine, as with so many travelling with surfboards and sports equipment, they didn’t instantly create suspicion. It was safest to move the drugs across the borders from the notorious coke countries – Peru, Colombia and Bolivia – to Brazil, and then fly out of one of its many bustling airports, easily camouflaged among the ceaseless throng of tourists. To buy coke in the three coke-producing countries was dirt cheap, usually $1000 a kilo.
In Peru and Brazil, cocaine is like sand in the Sahara, it’s everywhere. There are a million places where you can buy a kilo of coke, it’s like buying a kilo of sugar in the market.
How Alberto got started
Every time cocaine crossed a border, its price jumped. Across a single border to Brazil, a kilo cost $5000, and by the time it reached faraway party island Bali, prices hiked up to anything from $20,000 to $90,000 a kilo. The going rate was dictated by how much coke was on the island – that is, whether or not it was snowing in Bali. – Alberto
Just like Rafael, Andre and Marco, Alberto had been lured to Bali by the beach lifestyle. He’d first arrived for a surfing holiday, met an Australian girl and stayed a year, racking up huge debts. So when Peruvian drug boss Poca, who he’d met on in the night clubs, offered him a fast way to wipe out his debts in one quick trip to Peru, he decided why not.
I did it because I realised there were a lot of people doing this, and I needed the money. I was with debts, like a lot of bills piling up, so I took my chance. I crossed the globe, picked up this bag with two and a half kilos, put it on my back, and then starts the Midnight Express movie. - Andre
He spent two weeks surfing in Lima to give himself a viable cover story and, on the final day, was passed a loaded backpack. From that moment on, his muscles were tightly flexed. On every leg of the run he imagined jail, just waiting for the barred door of a cell to slam shut. ‘I thought there was a 50:50 chance of going to jail.’
Standing in line to re-board, his name suddenly blasted out of the loud speakers and across the airport, they were calling him to the airline desk. He froze, every muscle rigid, his chest squeezing tight. They’d found the blow...
For the entire 48 hours he was like a kid on a ghost train: sitting on the edge of his seat waiting for the next ghost to lurch out of the shadows. Simple things, that on a non–drug run flight would mean nothing, turned into heart-palpitating moments.
Standing in line to re-board, his name suddenly blasted out of the loud speakers and across the airport, they were calling him to the airline desk. He froze, every muscle rigid, his chest squeezing tight. They’d found the blow. He had to run, but where? He was thinking fast. He frantically looked around for an escape. Maybe the toilet window? No, he was on the second floor, and even if he made the jump, he’d never escape the airport fences.
I thought, ‘This is it. I’m gone. Oh fuck, they found it for sure.’ 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.
‘Has Mr Alberto Lopez gone through yet? Is he already on the plane?’
‘Okay. When he comes, please hold him because we have a problem.’
Alberto, now third in line, overheard this conversation, but stuck to his plan. It was his only option; there was no turning back. With adrenalin coursing though his veins, he showed the flight attendant his boarding pass, bracing for police to pounce, his eyes scanning for them, sure these were his last seconds of freedom. ‘Thank you, sir,’ she said, letting him pass. Now it felt surreal, as if someone were playing a dirty trick. Trembling imperceptibly, he walked onto the plane, found his seat and sat down.
I was getting mentally ready to be tortured. I’d heard that’s what they did. I was just waiting for Federal Police to come. Then the stewardess comes and says, ‘Oh, excuse me, are you Mr Lopez We have a little problem, we overbooked the plane, and sold your seat to a family travelling 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.’
Finally, he arrived in Bali, picked up his bag and, despite a raging pulse, breezed through customs, feeling sheer joy on the other side.
I went through like a kiddy arriving in Disneyland, really happy.
It had been two days of dicey moments and jangling nerves, but he was back in the black with cash spilling from his pockets. The trip gave him something else too; a brand new career. And the door quickly swung open to the blazing underworld of elegant parties, rich, important people, luxury villas, beautiful girls and more cash some days than most people see in a lifetime.
There was a very glamorous side to this business. You’d feel very important; there was all this fantasy surrounding it. Whenever I was going to do business, I set myself in secret agent mode. I would become a completely different person, like James Bond or whatever, making up stories, checking into hotels, driving around the streets, always watching if I’m being followed. It was like living in a movie, like Tequila Sunrise.
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. So I had like two lives, parallel.
Next up: When The Music Stops For Bali Drug Dealers