There are certain Special Operations legends out there that are sometimes hard to make heads or tails of.  One involves a little-known prison riot in Panama which resulted in a subsequent snatch and grab operation that the 2nd Ranger Battalion was involved in.  The author first heard about this event from his Platoon Leader in a patrol base in Afghanistan with 3/75 back in 2004.  Realizing that this event is under-reported, and parts of it completely unreported, this was clearly something that had to be written about.

As a part of Operation Safe Haven in 1994, thousands of Cuban refugees who had been trying to sail from Cuba to the US in improvised rafts and small boats were detained en route and imprisoned at the US military base in Guantanamo, Cuba, then transferred to Panama where they were set up in refugee camps.  The program was overseen by the US military, and the refugees were told that they would be granted entry to the United States.


From the time the refugees were transferred in September, they waited in the camps in Panama, becoming increasingly frustrated with their delayed entry to the United States.  By December, the situation reached a boiling point when the Cubans were told that they would not be immigrating to the US, but rather would be repatriated to Cuba.  On December 8th, 1994, the refugees rioted.  The unit charged with maintaining the refugee camp was 5th Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, and it fell on them to put down the riot.  They were denied shotguns and tear gas, and sent in to deal with the mob with batons and plastic riot shields.

Some bright star had decided to use rocks instead of pavement for one of the pathways in the prison, and when less than a hundred American soldiers from Charlie Company, 5/87 Infantry entered the camp to quell the riot, they faced hundreds of rioters hurling rocks that rained down on their formation.  Face masks and shields were smashed to pieces in the onslaught, limbs were broken, faces bloodied.  “When I watch movies about the Civil War and men marching into fire, that’s what it was… Everybody was hurt. Everybody got [messed] up,” one of the American soldiers present told Stars and Stripes.


Rocks continued to pour down on C/co, forcing them to retreat.  The problem was that the only gate available to escape the camp had been chained up.  It could be forced open some, but only wide enough to permit one soldier to slide through at a time.  Eventually, they got every man through the gap, but the unit took substantial casualties.  Although no one died, this mission had more WIA’s than any other since the Vietnam War.  Approximately 200 soldiers had to be evacuated out due to injuries.

The next day, one of the other refugee camps rioted.  A/co 5/87 flew in on Black Hawk helicopters and was sent in to contain the situation, with some Air Force men, in full riot gear.  The Air Force beat feet and left A/co in a nearly identical situation as C/co had been in the day before.  This time it was approximately 300 Infantrymen facing off against 3000 rioters.  The Air Force chained the gate shut, and it was with the help of a 7th Special Forces Group soldier that they were able to escape from the camp.  Rioters pushed the gate open behind them and dumped 55 gallon drums of human excrement on the soldiers before escaping.