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.
One soldier involved spoke fondly of his battle buddy who came through for him that day, a veteran of The Battle of the Black Sea in Mogadishu, Somalia: “Gary Lewis was an 11C assigned to our headquarters platoon. He was also my best friend in Panama and we were always together. Normally during our operations we would not be near each other, but for some reason he was right next to me when I needed him the most. He carried me out of harm’s way during the riot and possibly saved me from further injury, if not my life. He was a monster during those two days.”
Before the riots were contained, it has been reported that 36 Cubans drowned in the canal. Some of those present report that this is inaccurate, and that these Cubans were shot and killed by the Panamanian National Police and by some US Marines who also showed up to help deal with the riots. How these rioters were killed has been impossible to confirm for certain while researching this article.
As US military commanders in Panama looked over the casualties and examined the situation, one thing became clear. It was time to escalate the level of violence. 2nd Ranger Battalion, then under the command of Lt. Col. Stanley McChrystal, was in Panama at that time conducting jungle training at JOTC.
At the Jungle Operations Training Center, 2/75 had been training at shooting ranges, conducting jungle land navigation, riverine operations, and other training, all on the heels of a deployment to Haiti not long before. Once the Rangers got their Warning Order to move to the refugee camp, elements of 2/75 initiated their movement, which was about a three hour drive, while other elements of the battalion flew in on helicopters where they staged 2-3 miles away as a Quick Reaction Force.
When the Rangers in their vehicles arrived at the prison their firearms and live ammunition were confiscated. Some have said that their Battalion Commander, McChystal, did not want his men going in unarmed and this caused trepidation amongst the brass. Some senior NCOs were later armed with shotguns, but the other Rangers were only issued with axe handles (some say they were actually pick axe handles because a pick axe handle is heftier than a regular axe handle) along with riot shields and face masks.
While waiting for the green light to go into the camp, the Rangers conducted some minor training and were given a really half-assed class on how to contain a riot, then commenced with decorating their axe handles. Some carved designs in the wood, and others wrote messages to the rioters on them. Suffice to say that the boys were ready to “get some.”
At approximately 3AM in the morning, 2/75 Rangers and soldiers from 5/87 Infantry skirted through the wood line and breached the outer perimeter fence with wire cutters. The Rangers established a security perimeter for what was a cordon and search operation, particularly of the tents where the chief antagonists behind the riot were thought to be. The non-injured members of 5/87 were simply out on a mission of revenge. Some eyewitnesses have reported that they got their revenge about ten-fold on the rioters who had previously beaten their unit to a pulp.
Others were simply flexcuffed and led off. Some Rangers had the unfortunate task of having to search a tent which was known to be filled with HIV-positive transvestite prostitutes, and had to be issued goggles, surgical masks, and latex gloves. Tons of cigarettes were also found as they were being used as currency inside the camp. All told, they were not in the camp all that long. After a rock or two breezed through the air, Sergeant Major Magana decided it was time for the Rangers to get out of there before another riot broke out.
In the end, the post riot prison infiltration was somewhat anti-climatic, but makes for a cool story. It was 5/87 Infantry that literally bore the brunt of the prison riots and suffered severe casualties, but it is cool that 5/87 Infantry and 2/75 Rangers were awarded a Humanitarian Service Medal for helping to clobber a bunch of rioting Cuban refugees.
- Stars and Stripes
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