Bennington man's Coast Guard ship seized millions of dollars in narcotics
BENNINGTON — Peter Niles may be thousands of miles away from his home when he reads local news stories about drug arrests and people struggling with addiction.
For Niles, the commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Spencer, it's all the more motivation to keep on with his work.
He recently returned from a 65-day patrol in the Carribean Sea, during which his ship conducted several search and rescue operations and seized millions of dollars of narcotics.
"My crew and I know that we're doing our part to keep drugs off of the streets of our hometowns, Bennington, North Adams or anywhere," Niles, 50, told the Banner during an interview at his home on Sunday.
Niles, who has served in the Coast Guard for 31 years, is captain of the 270-foot medium endurance cutter. He leads a crew of 100 — 14 officers and 86 enlisted personnel.
Last month's drug seizures were made under Operation Martillo, a U.S., European, and Western Hemisphere effort targeting drug trafficking in the Carribean Sea.
As of March 2015, Operation Martillo, Spanish for "hammer," had resulted in the disruption of over 400 metric tons of cocaine over the past four years, denying drug traffickers $8 billion in potential revenue, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
"We're trying to stop the flow of drugs into the country, basically at the start of the trafficking operations," Niles said.
A self-described military brat whose father was in the U.S. Army, Niles said he saw the Coast Guard as "a way to make something of my life." It's where he ultimately met his wife, Kathy, who served in the Coast Guard for 22 years before she retired.
He started as an enlisted member, serving for 12 years before he and Kathy entered officer training together as a husband and wife, he said.
Today, Niles and Kathy have two sons, Gabriel, 13, and Cooper, 11.
Niles commutes to Boston during the week and goes on patrol for 65-days at a time. Missions can include maritime security, law enforcement and oil spills, he said. For several months last year and this year, he was stationed in Liberia, the West African country hit hardest during the Ebola crisis.
Intercepting drug traffickers is a dangerous business, Niles said, for both the Coast Guard and drug smugglers.
"Drug smugglers are taking a boat into very dangerous territory — open water and at times very high seas," he explained.
Traffickers use boats which can travel up to 45 miles per hour and are such called "go-fast vessels," Niles said. On top of that, most drug interdiction operations happen at night.
And then there are the ruthless heads of drug cartels themselves, he said, who have millions of dollars at stake and numerous firearms.
The Spencer's crew played a role in seizing 1,677 kilograms (3,697 pounds) of cocaine and 1,000 kilograms (2,204 pounds) of marijuana, worth approximately $50 million.
In addition, 11 suspected narcotic smugglers were taken into custody and were transferred to the offices of the United States Attorneys for prosecution.
In addition to seizing drugs, his crew also conducted several search and rescue efforts.
In mid-October while sailing the passage between Cuba and Mexico, Spencer's crew rescued 24 passengers from a disabled vessel that was caught in 12-15-foot seas. Spencer's crew was able to safely disembark the Cuban migrants as their vessel ran out of fuel and the sea state worsened. Niles said it was one of the most harrowing rescue cases in his career.
In Colón, Panama, Spencer's teams partnered with the National Aero-Naval Military Service of Panama to conduct a three-day joint boarding of a freighter suspected of smuggling narcotics.
Niles said he much of the satisfaction comes from knowing he and his crew are helping to keep illegal drugs off the streets.
"The drugs that we're seizing are making their way up here," he said.
"I hear people make a lot of negative comments about Bennington for its drug problem," he continued. "But this town is still great."
There are worse places in the world with bigger problems, he said, and the local drug problem is one that can be solved.
"It will take people who will work together to change it," he said.
Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979
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