US Customs and the INTERPOL Report

In late 1977, the Jonestown leadership learned that the results of an investigation by the U.S. Customs Service had been requested by, and provided to, INTERPOL, the international police agency.

It wasn’t the only report of investigation that Customs had made, but it was unnerving on a number of levels: that the existence of such an investigation was not only confirmed by the agency’s own documents, but that it had been going on longer than the Temple initially suspected; that Customs had solicited the cooperation of local, federal and international law enforcement agencies, and that they wanted copies of the results; that the information was coming only from Temple critics, with no attempt to confirm or balance what was being reported to Customs; and that some of the information was factually wrong.

The PDF and the text versions of the INTERPOL report on this page vary slightly. The PDF is from the Customs Department response to a 1981 Freedom of Information Act request for the report, and includes a number of deletions made under FOIA; the document itself is in the Moore Family Papers at the California Historical Society (MS 3802, Box 19, Folder 116). The text version is reprinted in part from A Sympathetic History of Peoples Temple and Jonestown by Rebecca Moore, which was written with access to a more complete copy of the report.

The INTERPOL Report, California Historical Society, Moore Family Papers (MS 3802, Box 19, Folder 116)

An analysis of the INTERPOL report, adapted from A Sympathetic History of Peoples Temple and Jonestown, appears below. The full text of the chapter from which the analysis was taken appears here.

The INTERPOL report, adapted from A Sympathetic History of Peoples Temple and Jonestown, by Rebecca Moore.

The U.S. Customs Service investigation greatly affected Jonestown by creating deep, and real, concern. The Temple learned of the Customs Service investigation on September 29, 1977. A Miami freight handler told church member Jim Randolph that a Customs search occurred August 29. In October, Temple attorney Charles Garry asked Customs why the cargo had been searched. Customs replied that such examinations of exports were routine, but that “in any event, any information which might have prompted an examination would be of the type which would be exempt from disclosure to your clients.”

By that time the Customs Service had had Peoples Temple under surveillance for ten months. An unnamed agent first made contact with Peoples Temple ex-members in February 1977. On February 24, the agent met with a dozen defectors who charged that the church was arming itself. Customs forwarded the report of that meeting to the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the FBI, the Secret Service, the State Department, and the California Department of Justice, “as well as various state and local law enforcement agencies.” Surveillance revealed “no indication of illegal activity.” Similarly, the shipment identified in August was “examined in Miami with negative results.”

U.S. Customs reports show a close scrutiny of Peoples Temple. On February 17, a Customs agent “surveilled the TEMPLE’S location in Redwood Valley and saw guards and watchdogs on patrol…According to the Mendocino Sheriff’s Office, the guards at night are armed.” On March 25, Customs forwarded four items to the San Francisco crime Lab of the Postal Inspection Service for fingerprinting. On April 21, Customs contacted the Organized Crime Intelligence Division and the Criminal Conspiracy Section of the Los Angeles Police Department, “with negative results.” An August 3 report observes:

Surveillance of the Church in San Francisco reveals evidence of large scale packing and crating indicative of an imminent move. One truck left San Francisco on July 9, 1977, for an unknown Gulf Coast port.

The Customs Service failed to turn up any contraband or signs of smuggling. Nevertheless, according to House Foreign Affairs Committee staff who studied the Temple and the government’s relationships with it, Customs “investigators apparently felt enough residual suspicion” to send their findings to INTERPOL and to the State Department. INTERPOL, the international police organization, shared the report with the Guyana police, which, in turn shared it with some Temple members in Guyana, including Carolyn Layton.

The INTERPOL Report came directly from an August 26, 1977 Customs Service report. That document came directly from interviews with ex-members. As a result, the report contains a few inaccuracies and a great many innuendos. The amount of acreage at Jonestown, as well as its location, are wrong. The agreement between Peoples Temple and Guyana not to search cargo – if there were one – ended in the summer or fall of 1977, according to the U.S. Embassy, when “Guyanese authorities began to pay greater attention to Peoples Temple activities.” The trawler belonging to the Temple was required to stop at Port Mabaruma for customs and immigration inspections. It is not clear why the Customs agent persisted in using the colonial spelling “Guiana,” nor why he referred to “British Guiana” later in the report.

The Customs document notes connections with the Black Panthers and Black Muslims. Other Customs papers go further, and allege that Jones donated $10,000 to the Muslims; and that “[deleted] acts as legal advisor to the Black Panthers.”

The U.S. Customs Service circulated the report widely. The agent distributing it said the State Department never acknowledged receiving it. The Guyana police did, though.

The Commissioner of Police in Georgetown wrote to INTERPOL at the U.S. Department of Justice on January 31, 1978. He observed that the police had made “no progress along the lines indicated and that the [Guyana] Customs Police investigations had not brought to light any evidence to support the allegation of firearms or foreign currency.” He concluded by saying, “surveillance will be maintained.”

The Customs report outraged the Jonestown leadership. In December 1977, Carolyn Layton wrote her parents that she’d read it.

The media has advertised us in the most grotesque and unreal manner – due to this conspiracy which is indeed real, though I know you are not conspiracy-minded and tend to pooh-pooh the idea. I saw myself the Interpol [Customs] report which a high officer in government allowed a number of us to read firsthand. They are accusing us of the most absurd things – trafficking in weapons and currencies. This I saw with my own eyes and as you know Interpol is closely related to high ranking and wealthy Nazis in the U.S. and originated from the Nazi movement in the first place. We have suffered an unimaginable sort of harassment in the United States. It is all a political game and since they can’t get us on small things, I guess now they want to start on the big ones. You need to read Comrade George and other such texts to get a perspective on what U.S. tax dollars abroad are used for. Because we have close government ties here, we have been able to learn a lot of a number of things which otherwise we would not know. (Of course, all originates from the U.S.).

Temple members didn’t know how to handle the charges. They had little idea of the extent to which they circulated throughout the U.S. government. When Terri Buford forwarded the report to Charles Garry, she asked, “Do you suggest writing INTERPOL, or is that just a waste of time? Perhaps we should write our congressman?”