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).