Guyana: 400 dead bodies in the jungle

(Editor’s note: This article by Pierre Gallerey originally appeared in the French paper, Le Figaro, on 21 November 1978. The original text of the article is here. The English translation by Vincent Moulard appears below.)

Aerial view of the farming community called Jonestown, created by Jim Jones in Guyana. Photo taken by the FBI during the investigation, which followed the mass suicide of November 18, 1978. Rue des Archives / © Rue des Archives / BCA / CSU

This ritual suicide, this sacrifice that seems to have arisen from the depths of the ages, is the second act of the drama that unfolded on the Port Kaituma runway on Saturday. Five American commission members who came to Guyana to investigate the activities of the “Peoples Temple” cult, founded by a former pastor James Jones in U.S., were shot dead as they were preparing to repatriate fifteen followers.

Leo Ryan, member of the House of Representatives (Democrat, California), who headed the mission, three journalists and a television cameraman, fell under the bullets of the cult fanatics who had ambushed them. Eight people were injured, including an American diplomat stationed in Guyana.

Total submission

A massacre that brutally recalled the existence and the actions of a well-known cult similar to many ones proliferating in the United States. After Charles Manson, the murderer of Sharon Tate, Jim Jones, the “Peoples Temple” founder takes his turn to feature on the sad list of the mystical killers. Aged 46, married and father of seven children, Jim Jones had created at the age of 18 a first community in Indianapolis, Indiana.

The American Jim Jones (1931-1978) is the founder of the “Peoples Temple” cult and the person responsible for a collective suicide in November 1978. Rue des Archives / © Rue des Archives / BCA / CSU

In the 1950s, he set up the “Peoples Temple” in California, the avowed goal of which was to abolish social classes and to advocate brotherhood. Clever, eloquent, very good at political manipulation, Jim Jones soon made friendship with many influential figures in California.

Yet the methods used by this unusual pastor, ranged from classic “brainwashing” to physical abuse, soon caused concern and complaints from many parents. Jim Jones demands from his followers a total submission, an exhausting work from which he collects the benefits, extorts pensions and donations. In August 1977, Jim Jones leaves San Francisco with 1,200 of his fellow disciples to create a farming community in northwest Guyana near the Venezuelan border. In this settlement lost in the jungle and baptized Jonestown, Jones will be able to give free rein to his taste for tyranny. Jonestown is in fact a real prison. The community members, whose task is to clear some 25,000 acres of forests in an exhausting climate, are beaten up under the slightest pretext, sometimes to death.

To maintain a mystical climate, Jim Jones organizes public sessions of false miraculous healings, of flogging during which the members of the cult confess imaginary crimes.

About twenty members of the cult place themselves under his protection and ask to go back to the United States. They must not talk.

Women make stuffed animals in the Jim Jones farming community in Guyana, November 1978. Rue des Archives / © Rue des Archives / BCA / CSU

Yet, despite the remoteness, complaints continue to flow in the United States, and especially in California where many followers come from. They also talk about weapons and drugs trafficking. This is why the representative[1] Leo Ryan, 53 , alerted by many families of his San Francisco district, decides, at the beginning of November, to go to Guyana to head the Inquiry Board consisting of eight journalists, cult lawyers, including Mark Lane who defended the murderer of Martin Luther King – an official of the American Embassy in Georgetown, and four relatives of the “Peoples Temple” followers.

The testimonies it collects are overwhelming. About twenty members of the cult place themselves under its protection and ask to come back to the United States.They must not talk.

Jonestown: followers of the “Peoples Temple” cult, working in the kitchen of the community. Rue des Archives / © Rue des Archives / BCA / CSU

During the visit to the camp, a young man had already tried to stab Leo Ryan.The assailant had been disarmed and the group hurried back to the Port Kaituma airport. At 4:20 p.m. local time the attack begins. Investigators, journalists and members of the cult who left Jim Jones are preparing to board the two aircraft whose engines are already running. Five or six men emerge from a tractor-drawn trailer and open fire at close range. Leo Ryan, journalist Don Harris and cameraman Robert Brown of NBC channel, Gregory Robinson, photographer for the “San Francisco Examiner” and an American woman, Patricia Park, believed to be a member of the cult, are shot dead at close range. One of the two aircrafts nevertheless manages to take off with the survivors and raise an alert. The dead and the wounded – about ten, two of them seriously – would be transported to Georgetown the next day.

On Sunday evening, a US Air Force military plane repatriated the survivors of the killing to America. The same day the Guyanese army launched an operation in the direction of Jonestown. Caught out in the torrential rain, it would take long hours to get there. They would only find dead bodies there. It is not known if Jim Jones is among the dead, or if he still roams the jungle, with his last followers.

[1] Translator’s note: in English and in quotation marks in the original text.