Gonzalo Rivera Pavon thought he would never see the light of day or breathe fresh air again when he was locked up for being connected to the biggest cocaine bust in New Zealand.

The 30 year-old bar manager was arrested in Christchurch in July 2016 after Customs found 35kg of cocaine, worth an estimated street value of $14 million, inside a 400kg diamante-encrusted horse head statue that arrived by plane from Mexico.

On Thursday, the 30 year-old held back tears when Justice Simon Moore dismissed the charges against him for possessing and importing the class A drug.

"I had never been in prison before, I was physically shaking and scared I would be assaulted by other prisoners," Rivera Pavon said in an exclusive interview with the Weekend Herald.


"Some of them offered me peanuts and noodles because they thought I was a drug dealer and could be useful [to them]."

The charges were dropped after lawyer Ron Mansfield provided Facebook messages between Rivera Pavon and a woman allegedly involved in the import of the sculpture to the Crown.

Rivera Pavon's brother Poncho - an HR consultant at a high-profile law firm - helped prove his brother's innocence after he discovered and downloaded an app that was able to compile the entire conversation between the woman and his brother which proved she first contacted Gonzalo and gave him misleading information.

Rivera Pavon revealed he was "naive" but doesn't blame the police for charging him.

"They were doing their job because I was involved, but I just didn't know what I was involved in. I thought I was in a legitimate business. I'm not angry. I told the truth"

Rivera Pavon came to New Zealand two years ago to be close to Poncho.

"I came here for a better life. I was tired of Mexico - the violence and the corruption."

He worked his way around the country picking kiwifruit and citrus at orchards in the Bay of Plenty and Gisborne, as well as milking cows for a few months on a dairy farm in Rakaia.

The international business graduate eventually settled in Christchurch, got a job as a bar manager and moved in with his girlfriend Melanie Bachi from Uruguay.

Their life was simple and happy but Rivera Pavon had ambitions to get into a business of his own.

"I was approached by a family friend ... who I went to university with to see if I could help her friend ... import a piece of art. I saw this as a business opportunity. I thought if they were selling art, I could be their New Zealand contact".

Rivera Pavon said all his dealings with the person were done via Facebook Messenger posts.

"I asked her, several times is everything ok?," he said. "She said, 'Everything is good. The statue is going to be for an exhibition at the ANZ in Queen St'."

Rivera Pavon contacted a courier company to make arrangements for the delivery of the sculpture and travelled to Auckland to meet his contact to organise storage facilities for the ornate Swarovski-encrusted horse head.

Gonzalo Rivera Pavon and his girlfriend Melanie Bachi. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Gonzalo Rivera Pavon and his girlfriend Melanie Bachi. Photo / Brett Phibbs

"She sent me a picture of the horse head, honestly it was amazing - all the crystals and diamonds - the shape and the size . It was impressive."

But last year on July 16, Rivera Pavon and Bachi were woken up at 8am by loud knocks on their door.

He originally thought the police were knocking on the wrong house.

"Our neighbours always had things going on, there was always different people coming and going - night and day," he said.

"I told them, 'the guys you are looking for live next door'. They said, 'No, no, no it's you we want to see'.

"They asked 'Are you Gonzalo Rivera Pavon?'. I freaked out and said 'Yeah it's me'. I said 'What's going on?'

"A policeman asked me 'Did you import something? Are you involved with importation that just came through Auckland customs?' I replied 'Yes. Art'. There were three or four policemen in my house with machine guns pointing at me and Melanie. I was super freaked out.

"The next thing I was in a police car."

Rivera Pavon was happy to help police with their questions and gave them his pin number on his phone so they could check who he had been talking to.

His partner and flatmates were all interviewed separately at the Christchurch police station. At the end of the interview , Rivera Pavon discovered why he was being interrogated.

"The police said, 'Ok I want you to know we have found 35kgs of cocaine in the horse head'. I thought - this cannot be real. No this is a mistake. I swear on my life I have nothing to do with that.

"The policeman said, 'That's what everyone says we have to wait and see what happens'."
Rivera Pavon said "one minute I am in a police car, the next I am in a police cell - it was a nightmare".

He said he'd never met the two co-accused fellow Mexican national Augustini Suarez, 44, and American Ronald Cook, 56. The pair will go to trial in the Auckland High Court on Monday, having pleaded not guilty to charges of possessing and importing the class A drug.

"When the police showed me their photo I said , 'No, I don't know them'."

He was later transferred from Christchurch men's prison to Mt Eden corrections facility where he confided his innocence to a prison psychiatrist.

Customs found 35kg of cocaine inside a 400kg diamante-encrusted horse head statue that arrived by plane from Mexico.
Customs found 35kg of cocaine inside a 400kg diamante-encrusted horse head statue that arrived by plane from Mexico.

"I said, 'Look I have been blamed for something I didn't do. I had nothing to do with the drugs. I am very afraid. Please help me'. She thought I was at risk of taking my own life so I was put in a segregated cell'."

He said being in a segregated cell still haunts him.

"They take away your underwear and clothes. You are just given a gown to wear. There are no blankets and you sleep on a thin mattress on a slab of concrete."

Bachi said she had never felt so alone before during the ordeal.

While relieved the charges have been dropped, the couple have endured massive financial losses.

The couple have no jobs, no house , no money. After Rivera Pavon was arrested, they were abandoned by their flatmates leaving the couple with huge debts.

"Our names were on the contract so I had to stay there," Bachi said. "But it was hard being there on my own - every time I went into the kitchen I would have a flashback and think of the policemen pointing guns at us.

"All our savings were used up for legal fees. I had to sell my car, my PlayStation. There was rent and electricity to pay so that's why we set up a Givealittle page."

But that public plea for help backfired with trolls posting comments based on the incorrect belief that Rivera Pavon had a case to answer.

One post stated: "How dare you come to my country and bring drugs, then beg for money?".

"Someone wished I would die," said Rivera Pavon tearfully

Shortly after charges were dropped on Thursday Rivera Pavon had his ankle bracelet removed.

"I finally feel like a free man. While I was on bail I couldn't leave the house. I couldn't go outside for fresh air. I couldn't even take the rubbish outside."

He wanted to thank Mansfield and his colleague, lawyer Sam Teppett, for "believing in me".

"They have worked hard to prove my innocence".

"This is the biggest lesson life has given me. I consider myself a friendly, kind person who likes to help people. I know I have to be kind but it can get you in trouble".