An American and Mexican have been jailed for their roles in importing the largest ever consignment of cocaine into New Zealand, hidden inside a jewel-encrusted horse head.
US man Ronald Wayne Cook Senior, 58, and Mexican national Agustin Suarez-Juarez, 46, were arrested in July last year after Customs found 35kg of cocaine inside the nearly 400kg diamante-encrusted statue, which arrived by plane from Mexico via Hong Kong.
The drugs had an estimated street value of up to $14 million.
Both men were charged with possession of and attempting to supply a class-A drug.
Justice Sarah Katz, in the High Court at Auckland, today sentenced Cook to a total of 17 years and nine months' imprisonment and Suarez-Juarez to 19 years and nine months.
Cook and Suarez-Juarez visited New Zealand in May and June last year to extract the cocaine and then to distribute it.
However, Customs and police uncovered the scheme and set a trap.
Seizing the horse head when it arrived, Customs repackaged it with identical-looking blocks of flour and planted a tracking device in the statue. It was then sent to its intended address, an Onehunga storage facility, on May 23.
The cocaine was so well hidden it took an hour to remove, Justice Katz said.
When Cook and Suarez-Juarez flew to the country from Hawaii on May 31, Customs officers were watching.
After scouting out several locations, Cook and Suarez-Juarez left briefly before returning to New Zealand again - assuming it was safe for the operation to continue.
Investigators, however, followed the men and watched as they extracted what they believed was their cocaine.
Some of the packaged blocks were taken to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, where Cook and Suarez-Juarez met the buyer, Henry Anchondo.
When the trio discovered the cocaine had been switched they realised the jig was up and tried to make a hasty escape.
Anchondo disappeared, and Cook and Suarez-Juarez were arrested trying to board a flight to Los Angeles.
Both men said during their trial this year that they believed the horse head was full of cash, not drugs, and believed they were involved in money laundering.
But the jury didn't believe them and found them guilty.
Today at sentencing, Crown prosecutor David Stevens said it was important for the court to send a message that New Zealand "is not a soft touch" for the importation of class-A drugs.
He said Cook and Suarez-Juarez may not have been senior members of the syndicate, but it was a "sophisticated, large-scale commercial drug operation".
He said the quantity of cocaine was unprecedented in New Zealand's legal history, about six times more than the next-highest case.
Stevens said Cook and Suarez-Juarez had created an elaborate cover while in New Zealand, including setting up a meeting with the Auckland Chamber of Commerce.
The pair were "well resourced and well funded", he said.
Cook's lawyer Sam Wimsett said his client, named "the Technician" during the scheme, had lived a "family life" and did not have a high-ranking role in the operation.
Cook was responsible for logistics and was Suarez-Juarez's translator, Justice Katz said.
She added that there were three suspected masterminds behind the operation, who were referred to by Cook and Suarez-Juarez as the "Godfather, Silverio and the Artist".
The Godfather appeared to be the most senior member, Silverio was the largest investor, and the Artist concealed the drugs in the horse head.
One text message about the operation read, "we are going to do good things with the Godfather, he is starting to trust".
"He was not to share in the profits of the cocaine, he was to be paid a fee," Wimsett said of Cook, and added that the fee he was to receive was "insignificant" compared to the profit the masterminds were expecting.
Suarez-Juarez had approached Cook, whom he knew through legitimate business ventures, and offered him US$50,000 ($69,000) to be part of the syndicate.
Cook had hoped the money would help him repair his family home, which he had spent his life savings on, the court heard.
Suarez-Juarez's lawyer Peter Kaye said a lengthy prison sentence in a foreign country for his client would be difficult, especially given his very limited English.
A Spanish interpreter translated the sentencing for Suarez-Juarez, who celebrated his birthday this week behind bars.
However, Justice Katz said Suarez-Juarez was the "senior operative' in New Zealand and closely linked to the masterminds of the operation, particularly Silverio.
Stevens also sought an order for the destruction of the horse head, which was granted.
"It can't be recycled?" Justice Katz joked.
Wimsett also quickly quipped that last he heard was that the horse head was to be auctioned off.
"I was hoping to have it in my new chambers," he said, drawing smiles from around the courtroom.
Cook and Suarez-Juarez, neither of whom have any known criminal history, will be deported immediately when they are released.
'I was physically shaking' - third man exonerated
Gonzalo Rivera Pavon was exonerated from any involvement in importing the cocaine after social media messages cleared him of any guilt.
The bar manager was arrested in Christchurch in July last year shortly after the horse head arrived.
In May, 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 told the Herald after the charges were dropped.
"Some of them offered me peanuts and noodles because they thought I was a drug dealer and could be useful."
Rivera Pavon's lawyer Ron Mansfield provided Facebook messages between his client and a woman allegedly involved in the importation.
The messages cleared him.
Rivera Pavon's brother, an HR consultant at a high-profile law firm, also helped prove his brother's innocence.
He had found a computer app that reconstructed the entire conversation between the woman and Rivera Pavon and proved she first contacted Rivera Pavon and gave him misleading information.
Rivera Pavon told the Herald he was "naive" but said he didn'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 his brother.
Operation Azteca - the country's largest ever cocaine bust
Customs group manager of Intelligence, Investigations and Enforcement Jamie Bamford said today's sentencing ended a long and complex investigation.
He said it began after solid intelligence and profiling work to identify this shipment as a risk even before it arrived.
"This was followed by scrutiny and sheer determination of Customs officers who undertook the examination process," he said.
"Getting into that horse's head required meticulous expertise to extract the cocaine and gather evidence against those involved."
Detective Superintendent Greg Williams of the National Organised Crime Group said he hopes Cook's and Suarez-Juarez's sentence sends a strong message.
"It is very evident from this investigation that there is still a high demand for this drug, and for this reason police will continue to work closely with our partners to target and disrupt these organised criminal groups who obviously do not care at all about the harm drugs do to individuals, families and whanau," he said.
"We continue to work with our international partners to identify the different methods organised crime groups are using to bring drugs into New Zealand so we can seize it before it gets into our community."
He said Operation Azteca was "a great example of this", while police also wanted to focus on the victims of drug addiction which can result from such offending.