Some special operations missions happen with little fanfare at the time, but as rumors circulate within the community, they begin to take on a life of their own. One such instance was the Panama prison riot of 1994, to which members of 2nd Ranger Battalion were sent to respond, armed with axe handles to help subdue Cuban refugees who had revolted. Another operation that has entered into special operations lore also involved a prison riot and Cuban refugees, this time within the United States, in response to which members of Delta Force were deployed.
The role of Delta Force has never been publicly disclosed, with a vague reference in the New York Times in 1987 being the only statement on the topic: “The Pentagon sent a team of military experts in hostage rescue to Atlanta to advise the F.B.I.”
On November 21st, 1987, nearly 1,000 Cuban refugee inmates revolted against guards at a federal detention center in Oakland, Louisiana, taking 28 hostages in the process. Two days later, another group of 1,500 Cuban refugees rioted at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, taking 76 hostages. Both revolts were triggered by a State Department announcement stating that 2,545 refugees from the 1979-80 Mariel boat lift were to be returned to Cuba. During the riots, many of the refugees—felons and criminally insane deported by Castro to discredit then-President Jimmy Carter—opened up other cell blocks, which intermixed the prison population. A full-blown hostage crisis was underway.
The FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) quickly responded to the prison riot in Oakland while two FBI SWAT teams from Knoxville and Detroit handled the Atlanta prison. By the 24th of November, the Army’s counterterrorism unit, Delta Force, was requested to advise and assist the FBI’s special agent in charge (SAC).
Dubbed Operation Pocket Planner, Delta deployed 58 members of the unit to serve as sniper/observer teams, run communications, provide medical support, gather intelligence, and conduct assistance in explosive breaching. Although many believe that posse comitatus precludes the deployment of military troops on U.S. soil, there are exceptions and waivers. A special office exists within the Pentagon that handles civil requests for military support.
With negotiations with the refugees stalled, Delta operators arrived in Atlanta to check into their hotels, but never returned, as they were kept occupied at the prison. Delta snipers organized the intelligence and collection efforts inside the prison, and breachers augmented the FBI SWAT teams as HRT was preoccupied at the second prison in Oakland. With the prisoners intermingling with one another, at least 12 separate groups were negotiating with the FBI at the same time, leading them nowhere fast.
On November 25th, more hostages were taken from the prison’s medical clinic for a total number of 94 hostages. Additionally, 315 Cubans surrendered and were then held in a separate part of the prison.
In these situations, hostage rescue units plan for deliberate and emergency assaults. Deliberate assaults are highly planned surgical raids executed by the counterterrorism unit at a time of their choosing, whereas emergency assaults are done on the fly in a worst-case scenario. An emergency assault would be carried out if hostages were being executed, for instance, as seen when Spetsnaz assaulted a schoolhouse held by Chechen rebels in Beslan years later.
With all of the hostages held inside the prison medical clinic, the Cubans had taken over the prison shop and were constructing various weapons. They had also captured some portable welders and were in the process of reinforcing the prison doors. Meanwhile, with the intervention of Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman of Miami, the prisoners in Oakland surrendered. HRT was then transported to Atlanta to assist the FBI SWAT teams.
The FBI and Delta Force advisors were conducting rehearsals for a deliberate assault on the two-story medical clinic, but a fear existed that they would be unable to execute an emergency assault as the FBI did not have that authority, which had to come from Washington D.C. The Delta operators worked alongside Tommy Norris‘s FBI HRT assault team. A former SEAL, Norris had served in Vietnam and was the recipient of the Medal of Honor.
There was one spot of good news for the assault teams. The prison housed a particularly dangerous white supremacist who had killed a number of men in prison. Distrustful of him, the Cubans invited the skinhead to a meeting and drugged his drink. Once he was passed out, they tied him up and turned him over to the authorities.
The 11-day siege was finally ended on December 5th, after extensive talks between the prisoners and FBI negotiators. The Cuban prisoners had largely gotten what they wanted out of the prison riot—a delay in their deportation and securing the right to parole hearings. The prisoners also received amnesty for the riots, aside from those who participated in “specific acts of actual assaultive violence against persons.” One prisoner had been killed by another, and a second prisoner had been shot and killed by a guard.
As for the Delta Force operators, they slipped back into the shadows, more than happy to let others publicly claim credit while their own role remained unacknowledged in the press.