Leader of the pack: Agung Ari, a leader of the Laskar Bali gang.

Leader of the pack: Agung Ari, a leader of the Laskar Bali gang. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

In the next few weeks, Juan Delgado* will sell his portfolio of Bali properties and, against his better judgment, hand $US120,000 to the same thugs who a few months earlier invaded them and threatened him with death. Meanwhile, Susi Johnston will keep her stunning villa in Canggu, but only after it too was violently invaded by gangsters who threatened her and tore up her possessions as she locked herself in the study. She won't pay a cent. In fact, the instigators - the estranged nominee she used to buy her property and the man who hired the gangsters - will face a criminal trial.

Johnston knows of about 100 similar cases in which attempts have been made to separate expatriates in Bali from their properties. And she - a widow living alone in the house she built with her husband - is the only one she knows of who has had the local contacts, the will and the luck to win the battle. Both Delgado and Johnston came face to face with one of Bali's darkest secrets: the pervasive, and growing, power of gangsters known as preman - literally "free men". These steroid-munching mafiosi, who take ritual Hindu weapons as their logos and their style cues from the military and outlaw motorcycle gangs, belong to a growing number of groups that sometimes clash violently on Bali's streets.

A lucrative area of specialisation for these gangsters is property repossession, sometimes involving force, and particularly aimed at Westerners. But that is just one of their revenue streams. Gangs also provide the flint-eyed young men working the doors of Balinese nightclubs. If you find yourself inside Kerobokan prison, they may beat you up or try to get you hooked on drugs. If you run a business, they may extort money from you, using threats of violence.

Building connections: The new Indonesian chapter of the Rebels outlaw motorcycle gang.

Building connections: The new Indonesian chapter of the Rebels outlaw motorcycle gang.

There are now strong indications that at least one Bali preman group is forging membership links with an Australian bikie gang, the Rebels, which is establishing a foothold in the lucrative tourist hotspot. But the senior members of these gangs also occupy important public-service positions, and seats in the Indonesian national parliament. They have provided security for a trip to Bali by Barak Obama, and they campaigned hard in support of both the province's governor and last month's unsuccessful Indonesian presidential candidate, Prabowo Subianto. And you'll see them smiling down, arms crossed, gang insignia prominent, from gigantic posters at Bali's roundabouts.

Juan Delgado was a man in love. In 2001, in his home country of Spain, he married his Indonesian boyfriend, Agus*, and a few years later they bought a house in Bali as an investment and holiday home. In Indonesia, it's illegal for foreigners to own property, so, like a fast-growing number of Australians chasing their Bali idyll, Delgado bought the house in the name of an Indonesian national - in this case, Agus.

In October 2009, the couple took the leap and moved permanently to paradise. Delgado quit his job in Barcelona and sold his apartment. With the money, he bought four more properties in Jimbaran, in Bali's south. Agus's name was on all the paperwork.

Laksar Bali insignia.

Laksar Bali insignia.

Many Australians, encouraged by local lawyers and real estate agents, use Indonesian nominees, often their household staff or friends of friends, to "buy" Bali property. The nominee's name appears on the title deeds, but a series of side contracts spell out the true situation. Legally, though, the arrangement is fraught with danger, which Delgado abruptly came face to face with in 2012 when, with little warning, Agus left him. "I found two of the land certificates gone, cash missing, a bank account in Spain emptied," Delgado says.

He was devastated, but says he intended to relinquish any claim over two of the five houses and give them to Agus outright. Events, though, moved faster than he could. Without his knowledge, Agus took out a $US55,000 loan using the houses as security, and started spending up big on designer clothes, jewellery, and foreign trips. Soon he was defaulting on his loans and, in August last year, he paid gangsters to take possession of the properties in his name.

Delgado had no idea Agus had done this, but soon found out when he went to inspect his houses. "Two of them were unoccupied, but when I went to one of them some people were inside," he recalls. "I saw preman - two or three of them - and I called the police. I went inside with the police and saw the men had a samurai sword and a handmade gun." The police did little: "They said they couldn't get the people out of the house because it was 'under litigation'. " The gangsters settled in.

A poster for Laskar Bali at a roundabout in Denpasar.

A poster for Laskar Bali at a roundabout in Denpasar. Photo: Michael Bachelard

Less than a week later, preman broke in and occupied a second house, then tried to get into a third. "There was a guest there and they tried to push the guest out."

One night, Delgado went to one of the houses and found it unoccupied. He went inside and found a pipe used for smoking crystal methamphetamine - ice, or sabu. The next morning, nine black-clad men and Agus showed up and forced Delgado out onto the street. Once again he called the police. As they all waited, one of the men caught Delgado's eye through a window and drew his thumb across his throat.

This time, though, because he was the one living in the house, the police let him stay. The gangsters departed, but Delgado was petrified: "Three houses with preman in them. I couldn't sleep for many days."

Doing battle: Bali resident Susi Johnston on a police car. Police have been deployed to protect her while her attackers are being tried in court.

Doing battle: Bali resident Susi Johnston on a police car. Police have been deployed to protect her while her attackers are being tried in court.

In desperation, he sent Good Weekend a dead-of-night email: "I fear for my life because I've read about so many foreigners found dead in mysterious circumstances and I don't wanna be another one."

Delgado tried to get local police to act. They told him to go to the district police. The district police sent him back to the local police: "Everyone was afraid to take this case." Meanwhile, Agus had reported Delgado to the Indonesian Immigration Department, and also to the police on a trumped-up charge of property damage relating to the day he was kicked out of his house.

Susi Johnston has become an authority on forced property repossessions since her experience, which also involved the nominee owner of her own property trying to claim it from her to pay a debt. Johnston, too, was threatened with deportation and actually spent a few days in jail after her tormentors planted drugs in her car. Johnston says these are becoming standard methods used by Indonesian nominees, backed by the gangs, to increase pressure on foreigners to sign over the rights to their co-owned properties.

Laksar Bali regional captain for Badung, Ajik Barack.

Laksar Bali regional captain for Badung, Ajik Barack.

As Delgado's property dispute began in the courts, he was confronted not by a lawyer, but by one of the gangsters: "He was standing in front of me, taking photographs, intimidating me."

Then, in January, 12 men came to the office of his lawyer, Reydi Nobel. Nobel says two of them were associated with the Rebels and shows me a photograph of a man who appears to be a Rebel, leader Adam "Vigilante" Abbott, with a group of Balinese men in Rebels regalia. "This man and this man," Nobel says, pointing, "were in the group that came to my office." The men demanded $US120,000 to stop the intimidation. "The preman said, 'You have to pay quickly or we'll be angry,' " Delgado recalls.

Initially he refused, but he was scared and worn down by the fight. The courts in Bali, as in most of Indonesia, are often corrupt, so legal outcomes are uncertain and can be expensive. Eventually, he capitulated. "Now I'll sell everything and move to an area where people don't know me in Bali," says Delgado. "I will sell up everything and pay."

Delgado's tormentors bore the insignia of a new gang on Bali's streets, called Satria Bali (Knights of Bali). It's an offshoot of the oldest and best-known gang, Laskar Bali, literally Bali Army. Both use as their logo the trishula - the weapon wielded in mythology by the Hindu god Shiva and used to sever the head of Ganesha (ironically, the lord of success).

Satria Bali is new, but Laskar Bali was established in 2002. Its leaders are from the powerful Pemecutan family, the traditional rajas, or kings, of one part of the tourist haven of southern Bali. Family members identify themselves with a horse-whip tattoo on their chests, but gang foot soldiers tattoo the trishula on the webbing between the thumb and forefinger on their right hand.

Laskar Bali began as a kind of Hindu defence league after the first Bali bombing by Muslim extremists. Agung Ari, the half-brother of gang godfather Gung Alit, says the gang worked that year with an arm of the Indonesian government, which he is not permitted to name, to help track down the bombers.

The two other big Bali gangs are also offshoots of Laskar Bali. Baladika Bali draws on old Hindu notions of the sacred but divine warrior, while PBB (Bali Youth United) has a less exclusively Hindu flavour and is run by a member of the national parliament, Nyoman Dhamantra. Gangs from Java and Sumatra, including Pemuda Pancasila, are also moving into Bali.

Ask Agung Ari about Laskar Bali and he describes it as a cross between a cultural group and an employment agency. "At the time it was formed, we wanted to create job opportunities for people in Bali, and as it develops it's just people with sincerity, and people with the intention of guarding Bali," he tells Good Weekend.

For a community group, though, it has a fair record of crime and mayhem. Gung Alit himself spent time in prison for killing a man in a karaoke bar in 2003. While he was out of circulation, one of the pretenders to Alit's throne, Wayan Kayun, was himself killed in an internal power struggle. Laskar Bali, says one long-time observer, is "without doubt the most violent of the mass organisations in Bali".

Last October, a minor dispute between two men turned into a gang pile-on as Laskar Bali and Baladika Bali turned Jalan Cargo in West Denpasar into a virtual war zone. Hundreds of antagonists, some carrying swords and tridents, showed up and at least one man was slashed. It took an equally strong force of soldiers and police, using seven trucks and two water cannons, to restore order.

The same two gangs, hired by opposing sides in a property dispute, faced off in Sesetan later in the year, prompting riot police to fire tear gas, some of which hospitalised children from a neighbouring school.

The gangs' power is also obvious inside Kerobokan prison. Sources say almost all Indonesian inmates are members of one of the groups, which are involved in protection and extortion, and control the supply of drugs. "Everyone joins or is forced [to join] ... the gangs recruit and indoctrinate, especially the young guys. They focus on [building] numbers," one prisoner says. "Even guards are unofficial - and some are official - members."

Each gang has its own territory, controlling one or more cell block, and the gang leader is also the block leader. "When a new person comes to the block, they either sell drugs to them or beat them up," the source says, adding that heroin, ice, ecstasy, cannabis and occasionally cocaine are available inside. "Laskar Bali looks after sabu. If someone else tries to bring in sabu, they'll get beaten up, but everything else is up for grabs. For Indonesians, sabu is the most popular drug."

The gangs use beatings and occasional killings to ensure loyalty. A convoluted inter-gang dispute was the trigger for two consecutive nights of rioting in the prison in February 2012, during which time the administration block was badly burned. Ask Ari about the prison link, though, and he's evasive: "I'm not saying yes or no. When you are in prison, you're more likely to say you're Laskar Bali to protect yourself."

Before being sentenced to nine years imprisonment for murder, Ajik Barak was in the armed forces. He joined Laskar Bali inside Kerobokan in 2005. Since his release, he's been promoted to regional captain for Badung, a large area that includes all Bali's tourist hotspots. "We're part of the security in the prison," Barak says. "Laskar Bali can help control the situation because we work with the officers. It's about peace. Wherever there is Laskar, there is peace."

Outside prison, he says, Laskar Bali is a community group whose members donate blood, plant trees and help poor people renovate their homes.

Barak agrees that Laskar Bali is involved in settling property disputes. He insists, though, that he would never do anything unjust. "I myself, personally, review the case. Mediation, dialogue is the best way. If [my client] is in the right, I'll fight through any barriers ... if people hire me, I'm available 24 hours," he says.

"If you go through all the legal proceedings," adds Barak, "which find my client in the wrong, but he still thinks he's in the right, well, I have a secret way of dealing with it." Barak will not elaborate on his secrets, nor whether they involve muscular men or weapons. After the unrest in 2013, various Bali gangs turned in their weapons. Barak says up to 4000 blades were handed to police as part of an amnesty, but he insists they were only ever held for self-defence.

He does concede that some Laskar Bali members might use violence, but says that has nothing to do with the gang itself: "It's just individuals. A lot of it is because they're young; fighting is common with young people."

"When it comes to people referring to mafia, is there any proof of them holding territory?" asks senior leader Agung Ari. "Any proof of them doing anything like mafia or taking over someone's rights? Illegally snatching people's houses? ... There are of course some people who do unethical things, but that is individuals, it's nothing to do with Laskar Bali."

When Delgado was in the depths of his nightmare, he felt the authorities were either frightened of the gang or implicitly supportive. Under Indonesian law, no member of the military, police, or legal apparatus is allowed to be a member of a "civilian militia". But even so, Delgado believes that the gangs and the police share membership.

It's hard for Australians to imagine how deeply these violent gangs penetrate Indonesian society and politics. They are considered ormas - or societal groups - an umbrella label that, confusingly, includes operators such as Greenpeace. But the so-called "citizen militia", neighbourhood watch-style groups, often dress in paramilitary regalia, and carry weapons such as blades or slingshots. They operate in daylight and enjoy the open patronage of political parties.

As University of Queensland political anthropologist Lee Wilson says: "That is how you do politics in Indonesia ... where perceptions of physical prowess and efficacy underpin popularity."

Bali police chief Benny Mokalu tells Good Weekend the gangs do a good job on his turf. "Who says ormas cause concerns in the community? There's none. They help. But in ormas, just like in any other organisation, it's the individuals [who might be] involved in criminal cases."

It’s the same mantra of individual responsibility for violence that’s used by the gang leaders.

Now the men who rule the streets want to take their power into parliament. At the April election, Agung Ari himself was a candidate for the national parliament. He did not win a seat, but another senior Laskar Bali operative, Agung Sumedi, did.

Laskar Bali has long supported the administration of I Made Mangku Pastika, a former policeman who narrowly, and controversially, won a second term as Bali's governor last year. And I Ketut Rochineng is both secretary-general of Laskar Bali and head of the Bali government agency responsible for hiring all public-sector workers. It's a lucrative position because of the bribes and inducements the candidates are often asked to pay to secure their recruitment.

Wilson says these gangs are spreading throughout Indonesia because, in a country with widespread corruption, poverty and a lack of government services, they can help poor young men gain social support, a voice in parliament and street-level power. For cultural reasons, security is regarded as a community responsibility; this is particularly the case in Bali. In any event, the police are seen as corrupt, under-resourced and poorly trained.

Wilson says, "You find these groups easily justify their existence through the rhetoric of security, the need to protect the community," particularly against "threats posed to Bali by outsiders". Even as both Delgado and Johnston were being roughed up, they were told they should consider paying someone to protect them.

Hundreds of expatriates, including Australians, are now queuing to "buy" property in Bali's booming market through private nominees. But you can bet that the glossy brochures do not feature images of blade-wielding gang members appearing on the doorstep and asking for the keys.

* Names have been changed.