Horsehead cocaine smugglers jailed

Two men at the centre of New Zealand's biggest-ever cocaine bust have both received lengthy prison sentences.

Mexican Agustin Suarez-Juarez was sentenced to 19 years and 9 months behind bars with a minimum no parole period of almost 10 years. 

His co-accused, American Ronald Cook, was sentenced to 17 years and 9 months in prison and will need to serve at least 8 years and 10 months before being eligible for parole. 

The pair were arrested at Auckland Airport last year after authorities found 35 kilograms of cocaine inside a diamante encrusted horse head.

The drugs had a street value of $14 million.

Drug detector dogs sniffed out the cocaine-packed statue which arrived in New Zealand from Mexico via Hong Kong.

Thirty-five blocks of the drug were located inside, and removed before being replaced with replica packages.

Thirty-four were filled with flour and the 35th with polystyrene and an electronic tracking device.

The horse head was packed up and moved through customs as originally planned, but this time police were hot on its heels.

In summing up Justice Katz told the court "From that point onwards the sculpture and anyone in contact with it was under surveillance."

Police and customs tracked it to a storage unit in Onehunga, and then to a property in Te Atatu.

Suarez-Juarez and Cook arrived in the country after the drugs and were the ones who transported them to the west Auckland house.

Shortly after the pair left for the US and returned about a month later, this time to unpack the drugs and meet with a prospective buyer.

Covert recording devices at the Te Atatu property where the horse head was being stored recorded the men trying to cut into the sculpture with power tools.

"It was no easy task, even with an angle-grinder. They gave up and went to the local hardware store to purchase additional tools."

They removed five packages, and took them to a central Auckland hotel to complete the drug deal.

But in doing so the pair and the buyer located the tracking device.

"Once in the hotel room they examined the packages."

"The buyer thought they seemed a bit weird. Purely by coincidence one of the packages they took was the one in which police and customs placed the polystyrene block and the tracking device."

"All three men panicked at that point.

Suarez-Juarez and Cook immediately tried to flee the country but were arrested at Auckland Airport's departure lounge.

At trial the men claimed they believed they were involved in a money laundering operation, and that it was cash not drugs inside the horse head.

It was an explanation flatly rejected by the jury.

Justice Katz told the court Suarez-Juarez was the "senior operative" in New Zealand, responsible for overseeing the unpacking, and organising the cocaine's wholesale distribution.

"You were top on the tree in New Zealand".

Cook was described as Suarez-Juarez's "right hand man". His nickname was the "technician" tasked with logistical support on the ground.

"You were also tasked with translating for Suarez, and providing handyman skills key to extracting the cocaine from the sculpture."

Justice Katz described the men's offending as sophisticated, large-scale and well designed to avoid detection by NZ authorities.

"Each step was premeditated and well calculated. You were not mere mules or couriers, you were the New Zealand based organisers of the syndicate."

The court heard the men's sentences needed to act as a deterrant for others involved in serious drug offending.

"It's important New Zealand is not viewed as being a soft touch for the transit of illicit drugs, or as the ultimate destination for an importer."

The pair were both described as family men with "big hearts" in character references from family.

While Justice Katz wasn't entirely conviced by Suarez-Juarez's claim to a good character she did described Ronald Cook's arrest as a "one off catastrophic fall from grace".


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