Abelardo Elias Duran, seen here in 2016 during the Nogales Rotary Club’s annual Santa Cruz County Public Safety Officer Awards Dinner.

A local businessman who served as president of the Nogales Rotary Club and vice-chair of the Nogales-Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce has pleaded guilty to trying to smuggle heroin, opium and fentanyl across the border from Mexico.

Abelardo Elias Duran, 47, pleaded guilty to one felony count of importing fentanyl and one felony count of importing heroin as part of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors. He signed the deal on May 19 and it was made public this week after a U.S. judge adopted a magistrate’s recommendation to accept the plea.

Duran faces two potential sentencing ranges, depending on whether the judge decides he deserves a so-called “safety valve” that would exempt him from minimum federal sentencing rules.

If the judge gives him the safety valve, Duran is facing a minimum prison term of five years and 10 months, according to the terms of his plea agreement. Without the safety valve, his minimum sentence is 10 years. Duran can also argue for a mitigated term, and the prosecutor won’t withdraw from the deal if the judge agrees.

According to a complaint filed at U.S. District Court in Tucson, officers referred Duran and the vehicle he was driving for a secondary inspection at the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry on Oct. 9, 2019. An X-ray scan of the truck revealed anomalies in the spare tire, which turned out to contain 48 packages of hard narcotics.

In the factual basis of his plea agreement, Duran admitted to being the driver, sole occupant and registered owner of the vehicle – a 2014 Chevrolet Silverado – at the time of the bust. He also admitted that he knew that drugs were in the spare tire, and he acknowledged that the drugs included 32.24 kilograms (71 pounds) of heroin, 1.14 kilos (2.5 pounds) of fentanyl and 4.54 kilos (10 pounds) of opium.

Furthermore, he admitted that he was expecting payment for successfully delivering the drugs to someone in the United States.

According to the original complaint, Duran told investigators during a post-arrest interview that he went to Mexico to buy flooring tiles for a house he was renovating in the United States. After purchasing the tiles, he said, he drove to an abandoned property that he owns in Nogales, Sonora and let someone else take his truck while he waited at the property for the person to return it.

Duran also reportedly told the investigators that he was going to be paid $4,500 to drive the truck and its drug load to a supermarket in the Phoenix area.

The original complaint accused Duran of trying to smuggle 179 pounds of heroin. It wasn’t clear why the amount was downgraded in his plea deal to 71 pounds of heroin and 10 pounds of opium, but the combined 81 pounds is still an unusually large quantity. In December 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced that it had busted a man at a Nogales port of entry with 109 pounds of heroin, which constituted the largest heroin bust in Arizona port history.

Duran, whose legitimate business activities have included working in the mortgage industry, has remained out of custody as his case proceeded through the court system. He continues to be an active member in the Nogales Rotary Club, an organization for which he served as president as recently as 2017.

As Rotary Club president-elect in June 2016, Duran helped congratulate and hand out awards to law enforcement officials during the club’s annual Santa Cruz County Public Safety Officer Awards Dinner.

At the time of his arrest, Duran was listed on the chamber of commerce’s website as the vice-chair of its board of directors. He has since been replaced in that position.

His sentencing hearing is set for Aug. 3 at U.S. District Court in Tucson.

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