History Wars

Operation Acid Gambit: Panama, Noriega and a CIA man

The daring Operation Acid Gambit was a Delta Force rescue mission that saw Kurt Muse plucked from the jaws of captivity.
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operation just cause/Operation Acid Gambit
An American flag topping its antenna, an LAV from Delta Co., 2nd Light Armored Infantry Bn. guards a street in Panama City during Operation Just Cause in December 1989. AFP PHOTO/DOD/HO (Photo by DOD / AFP) (Photo by -/DOD/AFP via Getty Images)

In 1989, Panama was in the iron grip of military dictator Manuel Noriega, and things were far from rosy. Just when you thought things couldn’t get more intense, Uncle Sam decided it was time to roll up his sleeves and step into the ring. In the blue corner, you had the U.S., the world heavyweight champion. And in the red corner, Panama, under the wily and ruthless leadership of General Manuel Noriega.

The bell for the first round rang on December 20, 1989, marking the beginning of Operation Just Cause, the largest U.S. military action since the Vietnam War. Their mission was a veritable laundry list of justice-serving objectives: protecting the integrity of the Panama Canal Treaty, safeguarding U.S. citizens in Panama, supporting democracy, apprehending Noriega, and ending his illicit drug trafficking. The U.S. wasn’t pulling any punches.

In 1989, American forces, numbering around 27,000, came storming into Panama like a bull in a china shop. Their targets: key military facilities, Noriega’s stronghold, and the notorious Modelo Prison. The resistance was stiff, but the Americans were relentless. The daring Operation Acid Gambit was a Delta Force rescue mission that saw Kurt Muse plucked from the jaws of captivity. But warfare is never a walk in the park, and the invasion was no exception. Despite the U.S.’s superior firepower and numbers, they faced fierce resistance. Casualties mounted on both sides, and the urban combat turned the city into a war-torn landscape.

Who was Muse?

At the high-water mark of South America’s drug wars, Kurt Muse found himself at the very top of Panama’s most-wanted list. No ordinary Joe, Muse was a U.S. Army veteran and raised under Panama’s sweltering sun. Muse was not one to sit on the sidelines when it came to fighting for freedom. Not content with just gritting his teeth under the oppressive rule of the narco-military dictator General Manuel Noriega, Muse decided to do something about it. He took matters into his own hands and led a motley crew of passionate Panamanian patriots on a daring mission: overthrowing Noriega.

And how did they plan to pull off this ambitious feat? By creating a channel of uncensored news and rallying cries for resistance, of course. Muse and his group created an underground opposition radio station, affectionately christened The Voice of Liberty, that served as a beacon of hope amidst the despair.

For two adrenaline-fueled years, Muse played a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Noriega’s regime. But as we know, all good things must come to an end. Captured and thrown into the infamous Modelo Prison, Muse’s story could have ended there. But fate, it seems, had other plans.

Behind enemy lines

Cut to the Special Operations community, where an audacious rescue plan was being concocted. The mission was as daring as its name. A Delta Force team was ordered to infiltrate Panama City, storm the prison, and spring Muse from his concrete cage. In the words of the plan’s mastermind, General Wayne Downing, it was “a classic Special Operations mission.” What a choice word – classic. More like harrowing, dangerous, and scary … but maybe not for Delta Force. As you might expect, planning was meticulous. It included everything from building mock-ups of the prison to endless rehearsals. All that was needed was the go-ahead.

The execution of Operation Acid Gambit was like a chess game where the stakes were not just a win or a loss, but life and death. On the night of December 20, 1989, the commandos, flying in MH-6 Little Birds, landed on the prison’s roof. They took the guards by surprise, overcame resistance, and made it to Muse’s cell. Muse, looking every bit the surprised yet relieved prisoner, was escorted to the waiting chopper. As they lifted off, an RPG slammed into the Little Bird. But somehow, the pilot managed to crash-land near the U.S. Embassy. Talk about a choice landing. At the embassy, they were officially on American soil. Translation – they were officially safe and Muse was out of prison.

noriega
(Original Caption) 1/04/1990-Miami, FL- Ousted Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega is shown in this Justice Department mug shot released by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Miami. Noriega surrendered to U.S. forces in Panama, and was brought to the United States, where he faces charges of drug trafficking. (Getty Images)

Mission accomplished

Operation Acid Gambit is the stuff Hollywood blockbusters are made of. Fortunately for Kurt Muse, it was a success. Once the dust settled, the audacious mission highlighted the bravery and skill of the Delta Force and reinforced America’s commitment to its citizens, regardless of where they were and what odds they faced. However, success came at a cost. The pilot of Little Bird was seriously injured and many others had minor injuries.

Acid Gambit and its legacy operation

Acid Gambit, though just a small part of the U.S. invasion of Panama, left a lasting impression. It showcased the sheer audacity, meticulous planning, and high stakes involved in special operations missions. The mission remains a testament to the bravery of the operatives and the unyielding spirit of men like Kurt Muse. Today, it serves as a reminder of the lengths nations will go to protect their own, cementing its place in the annals of military history.