NZ's biggest cocaine bust: two men jailed
Two foreign men will spend between 17 and 19 years behind bars for smuggling the largest recorded cocaine haul in New Zealand history.
American Ronald Cook, 58, and Mexican Augustine Suarez-Juarez, 46, were found guilty of smuggling 35kg of cocaine into the country last year.
Suarez-Juarez was sentenced to 19 years and nine months in prison and Cook was sentenced to 17 years nine months behind bars.
Both will also serve 6 years concurrent after being found guilty of supplying the class A drug.
* The cocaine trail: New Zealand's biggest bust
* Guilty verdicts in horse head trial of the country's biggest cocaine bust
* Cocaine trial: Men were part of 'sophisticated' international drug operation, Crown claims
The Crown claimed they were involved in a sophisticated, large scale international drug trafficking operation.
Customs found the 35kg stash of high-grade cocaine valued at $14 million smuggled inside a diamante-encrusted horse sculpture.
The largest cocaine bust recorded previously was 6kgs.
A jury found the pair guilty after a four week trial concluded in July at the High Court in Auckland.
Suarez was found guilty of importing, possession and supply and Cook was found guilty of possession and supply.
Both men denied all charges.
Justice Sarah Katz said the pair were part of a large scale, sophisticated and highly commercial drug trafficking ring.
"You were closely connected to the drug importing syndicate, on their payroll.
"Bringing drugs into circulation in New Zealand was part of your role."
She said Suarez-Juarez was responsible for overseeing the operation and was at the "top of the tree" in the New Zealand distribution. He had contact with the masterminds in Mexico, she said.
Cook's nickname was "The Technician" as he provided handy man skills to extract the drugs from the sculpture and was Suarez-Juarez's right hand man.
She said the pair were involved with the ringleader named "The Godfather", a major investor called "Sulverio" and another man responsible for packaging the drugs called, "The Artist".
The 400kg sculpture raised eyebrows after being freighted by air from Mexico to Auckland in May 2016, and sparked a joint investigation by customs and police.
Cook and Suarez-Juarez claimed they were in New Zealand for a diving holiday. In the trial, Cook said he was given USD$50,000 to move the horse sculpture, which he believed contained cash.
Suarez-Juarez claimed he was part of a company in England that sold sculptures and that he was paid to move them.
When the drugs were discovered by Customs, they planted a trap - replacing 34 of the 35 packages with a harmless powder.
In the 35th package, police placed a recording device, polystyrene and six grams of real cocaine, so whoever tried to sell the packages could be charged.
When the pair discovered the 35th package upon opening the sculpture, they panicked and soon tried to flee the country.
They were arrested in the Auckland International Airport departure lounge waiting for a flight to Los Angeles.
Before Justice Katz gave her sentence, Crown prosecutor David Stevens said a starting point of between 20 - 22 years imprisonment was appropriate.
"The message must be that New Zealand is not a soft touch... in cases of the importation of class A drugs," Stevens said.
He said both men played key roles in the operation and were well sourced and well funded.
Cook's defence lawyer Sam Wimsett said Cook only became involved in the operation after the haul was imported.
Wimsett said his client was not going to have a share in the profits, although he was to be paid a fee. He said Cook was not a risk or danger to society and asked Justice Sarah Katz to take into consideration his age.
Suarez-Juarez's defence lawyer Peter Kaye asked Justice Sarah Katz to consider that a jail sentence in a foreign country would be hard to cope with.
He said Suarez-Juarez's was a family man and a person of "otherwise unblemished record".
In a release made by police after the sentencing, Detective Superintendent Greg Williams hoped the sentence sent a strong message to drug traffickers thinking of preying on New Zealand communities.
"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."
Customs Intelligence and Investigations Manager Jamie Bamford said work began to identify the shipment as a risk even before it arrived.
Getting into the horse head sculpture required meticulous expertise to extract the cocaine and gather evidence against those involved.
"There's real partnership between Customs and Police to tackle drugs from all points – before, at and post the border, to protect New Zealanders from its harm," Bamford said.