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Santa Maria Residents Say Smuggling Activity is Nothing New

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NEAR SANTA MARIA – People in the town of Santa Maria claim smuggling activity in the area has become routine. The town sits near the Rio Grande River.

For Sarah Ayala, Santa Maria is home. She said there are certain things, like illegal activity, that has become a way of life.

"We are so used to it - that's an every day (thing)," she told CHANNEL 5 NEWS.

Just a few days ago, U.S. Border Patrol agents made a big drug bust in the small town. They seized 500 pounds of marijuana with a street value of just under a half a million dollars.

Agents spotted a suspicious vehicle by the river just about two miles from residents’ homes.

When they approached, the driver attempted to drive the SUV packed with drugs into the Rio Grande. They said seven suspects were seen swimming back to Mexico.

Harlingen Border Patrol Supervisory Agent Henry Leo told us small towns like Santa Maria are attractive to smugglers.

"It's the proximity from the river to the closest paved road, and in that area, it's Military Highway and even the expressway," said Leo.

He said it's a constant battle with smugglers who try to blend in with residents.

"You have smugglers that are attempting to blend in with legitimate local traffic. Whether it's landowners or farm workers in that area," Leo said, "and they'll use that to their advantage in the early morning, or lunch - whenever they perceive there's a gap in coverage."

Residents said not a day goes by that they don't see Border Patrol agents in their town, and they like it.

"I see them go by, sometimes they are with their lights on," said Arcelia Maldonado.

"It's safe - I feel it is," Ayala added. "Cops do their jobs, and Border Patrol (agents) do their job."

Leo said agents stationed in the Harlingen area keep watch over a 40-mile stretch. He said patrols work 24/7 in the Santa Maria area.

Santa Maria is divided by the Cameron-Hidalgo county lines. Leo said they work with local departments from both counties and the Department of Public Safety to help secure the area.

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