Panama Modelo Prison of Death


Dear Ed“Mofak”Cathcart,

I’d like to share a tale with you. You’ll remember that we young, “Blacksheep”, lieutenants got into “scrapes” in the air, as well as on the ground, in the late 1960s at MCAS El Toro. You were more seasoned than we, and you used to say of us younger pilots, “Where do we get ‘em; you buy ‘em books and send ‘em to school, and what do they do? They date the teacher!” Well, Mofak, we didn’t necessarily grow up, grow out of it, or fly straight; that’s for sure. My tale is how I, a “Blacksheep”, bad boy, attack pilot, who became an Air Force Flight Surgeon a few years later, got caught-up in one of Panamanian Dictator, General Manual Noriega’s “prisons of death” and in 1989 helped the US Army Delta Force pull off a daring hostage rescue. Producer Lauren Hertz put together a Military Channel production of these events titled, Combat Zone, ”Rescue in Panama”. I was the “inside man” for the caper.

                      Jim Ruffer is fifth from the left (kneeling row) while Mofak is first from the right on the same row.


This "Delta" thing was a scoop for Producer Lauren Hertz, but it was also a “scoop” for all of those brave souls involved in the rescue of hostage Kurt Muse, an American citizen and Republic of Panama businessman (and a CIA “operative”). You know how meaningful it is for soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines to have their lives and actions immortalized in any small way. The life of a “soldier” is not glamorous to those within the calling, and yet it is really pure "glamour", and it is exactly the kind of thing that “everyone” would love to get involved in, for at least a little while; or until the awful reality of it should drive them away to something less officious. We felt blessed to be what we were in our military lives, and we expected to serve in anonymity. "Delta" had been carefully shielded up until “Operation Just Cause”. As you remember, Delta Force was in the Arabian Desert in 1980 on a mission designated "Desert One", when things went bad. My Naval Air Training Command companion, Captain James Schaffer USMC, piloted a helicopter on that mission which was accidentally air-taxied, during a blinding dust storm, into a C-130; and eight men died. The mission to rescue the American hostages in Tehran ended there. Since WWII there had been not one rescue of an enemy held American prisoner, by U.S. forces, to my knowledge, until Operation Just Cause and the “Modelo Prison Mission” which I will describe. The Army's Airborne and Special Operation’s Museum in Fayette, NC, near Fort Bragg, will build a venue for the paraphernalia of the “Modelo Mission”, or "Acid Gambit" as it was called by Delta Force, for display in perpetuity.


                                                      Kurt Muse Family

I am of the sort that finds it hard to give up anything that could be considered memorabilia. So, I have saved a lot of stuff over the years; much to my wife's displeasure. I kept a diary of what happened within the Modelo Prison for each of the eighty-two visits I made into its horrors. During a period of nine months I was reluctantly admitted into that prison by its keepers. The Panamanian Dictator was obliged to allow one uniformed American medical officer into the prison to attend the American hostage, after President George H. W. Bush threatened travel prohibitions upon the Panamanian Regime. My diary of these events helped author John Gilstrap build the chronology for the prison portion of his book, “Six Minutes to Freedom”. There are many things that happened in the prison that are noteworthy, but will never be told; and, in any case, a book could only tell a small portion of what actually happened there. I had dedicated my life to the care and rescue of Kurt Muse, the “owner and operator” of clandestine “Liberation Radio” which had so much annoyed General Noriega. Kurt Muse was to be eliminated, and with his dilemma life for me became stranger than fiction, and for him it became almost unbearable. I did not know at the time that Kimberly Muse, his teenage daughter, then in hiding, knew my daughter, Kristina, and that they were “best friends”. I had not even known the name, "Muse", until just before I began my missions into the prison. I had to ask myself the question, after these events had passed, “Had I cared enough about my daughter and her extraordinary life in those tender years?” I had not even known that she had “lost” her best friend. Real life does outdo the movies! However, for me the Modelo was “secret business”, and this alone offered a slight excuse for my not knowing of my own daughter’s personal plight during the ensuing intrigues.

In Panama I saved the issues of the Southern Command newspaper, the “Tropical Times“. It had some great headlines and pictures which bespoke the suspenseful times in which we were living; the paper wrote about our little microcosm in the world, which the American news media was never able to get right.

The Left Wing Media in the United States never took its own country’s side, but in my travels to South America I was always chastised by foreign military officials, and even by some political types in those countries, that America should get rid of Noriega by any means necessary, as he gave a bad name to the whole hemisphere. My reply to them would be that they should read their own newspapers; to which they would reply, “We have to have all that anti-American stuff in order to maintain political stability in our country".

The Tropical Times was our own little parcel of printed reality, and it did not reflect what my grown-up children were seeing on their TV screens in the USA. For example, after the Invasion of Panama in December 1989 the CINC (General Maxwell Thurman) directed me to count the number of dead Panamanians resulting from the fighting. There were 202 of them, and I counted them on two separate occasions to be sure of the number (The number, 202, became the US official statistic, and has gradually climbed above 300 in the twenty years following the invasion). Once at home again in the USA, I viewed a "Sixty Minutes" television program, taken from their invasion coverage, in which the male, investigating, reporter vehemently stated that thousands had been killed by Americans through the use of indiscriminant aerial bombing of Panama’s neighborhoods (But no bombing took place except for a section of stealth fighters that dropped a couple of bombs on an uninhabited target far away from town or city; this was the F-117’s world debut). He went on to say that our troops had wantonly killed the innocent. Continuing, he called for war crime indictments and suggested that there were 2000 to 4000 and maybe even 6000 dead. As I remember, he said the bodies were buried surreptitiously in mass graves. I remember, personally, dealing with the dead, and not just the war dead but the 50 or 100 who died every day of old age, accident, or disease in that country of over two million people; and I remember the situation where the looting had overcome our ability to humanely stop it and where electricity did not flow to the morgue refrigerators or anywhere else very well. Yes, we buried the dead, at the new government's request, and we were constrained to do it quickly. There is no longer any believable claim against us; time has itself proven that no one is missing. There simply are not dozens, or thousands, of missing souls in Panama.

Ruffer Children watch the Fighting in the Streets of Panama City.  Karen, Ruth, Kristina & Jose

I also kept a daily log of everything that I ever did at Southern Command, almost from the first day of my twenty-seven month tour there. I recorded many things that addressed the times we were living through. The log would reflect, for instance, a pre-invasion day when an East India businessman of Panama City paid me a phone call and identified himself as an important, Lion’s Club, member on a humanitarian mission. It seemed that a young Panamanian had been badly injured in a fireworks explosion, had lost his sight among other things, and badly needed help that Panama could not provide. Could I help? Now, this had occurred during the difficult times when there was little cooperation in Panama between the two signatories of the Panama Canal Treaty. I told him that I would see the patient and help get him to a hospital in the United States, but that I would first need to get the General’s approval. The Lion’s club member immediately interrupted me to tell me that he could absolutely guarantee the General’s approval. I ask how he could do that, and he replied that General Noriega would approve without question. I had to inform the businessman that it was not “his” General’s approval that I was interested in but “my” General’s approval. Such “disconnects” were “usually” humorous! It is good to put this stuff down on paper, so to speak, but I seem to be avoiding the thing that I most wanted to share with you.

Early in the history of my regular encounters with Kurt Muse, in the prison, he told me that the sounds within the prison were horrible and haunting. He could hear men being tortured and a prisoner awakening-in-a-scream; as he himself did. Once I found him faint and trembling from emotional shock after a man had been butchered just outside of his cell; blood was something I tread through on occasion within the Modelo. He also heard distinct sounds that were memorable, unique, and disturbing such as the “phantom” typewriters that hummed continually, night and day, during the height of Noriega’s purges of opposition members and enemies. As in many outlaw regimes the Noriega madmen carefully documented the entry of each prisoner into their infernal “sanctum”; However, Noriega's secret organizations of extortion, murder and mayhem did not bother with such fastidiousness. Then, there was the case of Barabbas.

Barabbas was a mystery to Muse, and he showed much interest in the Barabbas story; the man was responsible for the howling that permeated the prison at night and invaded the soul of each inmate until it became part of him. Did a Barabbas figure haunt the bowels of the prison; and had this Barabbas been present there when my Panama City landlord (beautiful, aristocratic, Lydia De Janon) was arrested and incarcerated in Modelo, and was fed hand-slopped food, by transvestite inmates, themselves used in the most hideous ways against the captives of the Regime. After her eventual release from prison Lydia De Janon vowed to me to die at her own hands if ever threatened with Modelo again. But to continue, Barabbas rattled his chains and howled, sometimes continually at night, and the sound was as diabolical as it was inexplicable to the uninitiated.

As my visits continued, there came the day when I sprang my first prank on Kurt Muse; the time was right as there was need for a new mood within his prison cell. "Kurt", I whispered, knowingly, to captivate his attention instantly. I found out who Barabbas is!” Kurt fell for this bait instantly, and he looked around himself to see if it were safe for me to betray such a secret; actually, in nine months, I never uttered a word that I was not prepared to have overheard (or picked up by a hidden microphone). I continued, “Kurt, Barabbas is ancient, and has been in the Modelo forever, it seems; a black man, naked, pure white afro, chained, and completely mad. He was picked up in the jungles of Panama by a previous regime in about 1929, I would say, while hand-cranking a clandestine, radio, Liberation Panama". Kurt seemed incredibly impressed with this bit of information, exhibiting a stunned expression; and he probably, transiently, considered himself a fortunate man in the comparison, until, that is, he made the comparison of his own plight with that of the Barabbas I had just described, at which point his amused stare transformed ever so subtly, muscle by muscle, twitch by twitch, as the story sunk in and as his ire at being hoodwinked by the doctor fully developed; and his expression then seemed to say, “a new and different Doctor Ruffer, it would seem, has appeared in prison”. By now the gentle stare had became a glare, and very angry for an instant, and then Kurt Muse began to laugh outrageously. He would repay the doctor in kind, later, during a future visit. And in spite of the danger and diabolism, or maybe even because of them, our souls became wedded in the quest of sanity and survival. And the day would come when I would see Kurt Muse safe; and I would see Barabbas, for myself, in an extraordinary moment, when I would again demonstrate some modicum of adroit and practiced wisdom that helps make life so much fun. I'll save that for another day. History records that Kurt Muse was rescued, not without drama, in a well planned and well executed mission by Delta Force operatives during Part One of the Invasion of Panama. I am proud to have helped plan that highly successful operation.

President Bush Welcomes Kurt Muse Home following his Rescue on the First Night of Operation "Just Cause."

I hope you enjoy this material as much as I've enjoyed giving it to you.

                    Yours truly,

                  Jim Ruffer