Retired police officer recalls struggle with Bolivian painter who tried to kill Pope Paul VI in 1970 Manila visit

On November 27, 1970, Bolivian artist Benjamin Mendoza, wearing a priest’s cassock, slashed Pope Paul VI with a dagger after he managed to slip through airport security in Manila.

Manila newspapers bannered stories that it was the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda who were able to parry “with a single blow” the attack on the life of the Pope.

Pope Paul VI was reported not injured in the attack and continued his nine-city Asian tour. Eight years later, after the Pope’s death, the Vatican broke its silence and told news organizations that Mendoza indeed was able to wound the Pope on the chest.

Msgr. Pasquale Macci, personal secretary of Pope Paul VI, said he was able to push away Mendoza who was wearing a priest’s cassock, throwing him off balance.

Retired police Supt Rodolfo Mañoza, then a Philippine Constabulary sergeant who was near the Pope, wrestled the 5’8” tall Mendoza who was armed with a long dagger.

Forty-five years later, Mañoza narrates what happened that morning at the Manila airport and how his superiors told him to go with the story that it was the Marcos couple who saved the Pope.

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 15 Jan) – Retired police Supt. Rodolfo Mañoza could still remember vividly the morning how he wrestled Bolivian painter Benjamin Mendoza who attacked Pope Paul VI with a 13-inch dagger.

“It was early in the morning. Mendoza was taller and bigger. We wrestled and I tried so hard to tackle him. I could hear the shouts of anguish from the crowd,” the 70-year-old Mañoza narrated.

Mañoza, who was with the Philippine Constabulary Metropolitan Command (METROCOM), was on special detail assignment with Civil Aviation Authority chief Federico Ablan at the Manila airport.

On the night of Nov. 26, Mañoza said he and five other PC soldiers were called to a meeting by Gen. Martin Luther Custodio, chief of the Aviation Security Command, who told them to report early next morning.

Mañoza recalled that no reason was given why they were to report early on the morning of Nov. 27, 1970.

“We were just told to wear the formal Barong Tagalog and report early at the airport. We were not told it was Pope Paul VI we were guarding. We were just told to help control the crowd,” he narrated.

Mañoza said that the next morning, they reported at the airport tarmac and was surprised of the presence of the huge crowd.

He said the six of them were standing at the airport when a tall man whom they believed was a priest as he was wearing a cassock approached them and politely asked if he could go nearer to the tarmac.

As it turned out, it was Benjamin Mendoza, the Bolivian painter, who would go down in history as the first man to made an attempt on the life of a pope in modern times.

“He (Mendoza) was very polite. He was carrying a small black box with a small cross embossed on the top,” Mañoza said.

He recalled Mendoza telling them that he wanted “to give something to the Pope.”

Since there were so many priests and nuns on the tarmac, Mañoza said Capt. Guillermo Sabella, chief of the tarmac security detail, allowed him to linger with them.

When the plane bearing Pope Paul VI landed, Mañoza said the crowd became so unruly, eager to see the Pope as he alighted. Soon the crowd overwhelmed the security cordon thrown around the Pope.

Mañoza said it was at this time that he saw Mendoza, taking advantage of his height and weight, weaved into the crowd to get near the Pope who was already coming down from the plane.

Seeing he was separated from his companions, Mañoza said he followed Mendoza as the Bolivian painter made his way in the crowd.

“It was natural for me to follow Mendoza. I was smaller and he could easily get himself through the crowd,” Mañoza said.

Mañoza said they have gotten near Pope Paul VI who was encircled with dignitaries when he heard people shouting: “Sinaksak si Pope! Sinuntok si Pope!” (The Pope was stabbed! Someone hit the Pope!)

It was Msgr. Pasquale Macci, personal secretary of Pope Paul VI, who was able to push away Mendoza as he continued to attack the Pope.

Mañoza said the artist, still armed with the dagger, was pushed back towards him.

“I grappled Mendoza from behind. He was trying to break free from my grip and he was very strong,” Mañoza said.

He said he and Mendoza wrestled for a while as the papal security detail pulled the Pope away from the scene. Other policemen came later to help him hold Mendoza who was still trying to break free.

He said they had to bodily carry the Bolivian artist to a police van.

“Inside the van, Mendoza was still trying to break free. So I punched him in the gut,” Mañoza recalled. Mendoza laid still after the powerful punch.

Mañoza said they brought Mendoza to the Aviation Command headquarters while orders were given to him to personally escort the suspect.

He said they were transferred from one office to another for the rest of the day until they were taken to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) office along Taft Avenue.

Mañoza said NBI Director Jolly Bugarin asked him to sign an affidavit and ordering him not to bother reading it.

Huwag kang maging makasarili. Nakataya ang pangalan ng Republika ng Pilipinas dito,” (Don’t be selfish. The name of the Republic of the Philippines is at stake here.) Mañoza recalled Bugarin as telling him when he was asked to sign the affidavit.

The next day, Manila newspapers bannered news stories that it was President Marcos and his wife, Imelda, who was able to foil the attempt on the life of Pope Paul VI.

“The Pope was saved by the quick action of President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines who cut down the hopeful assassin with a single blow. Moments after Mendoza was engulfed by secret service agents and rushed off to jail,” screams one news story that appeared in one of the newspapers.

Mañoza said he was taken aback by the lie but could not do anything at that time.

“How could President Marcos save the Pope when he and Imelda were 5 to 10 meters away?” he said.

[Mendoza, however, acknowledged that President Ferdinand Marcos blocked his attack. He even said during an interview inside Bilibid Prison with Canadian-born journalist Ron Laytner that he was even hit by Marcos with a “karate blow.”]

Mañoza said when he went home to Makati City later, his neighbors came out to congratulate him, some clapping their hands.

“My neighbors knew the truth. They saw it on TV. They knew the truth. My neighbors gave me their greatest reward. I got respect,” Mañoza said.

Several days later, he chanced upon Mendoza at a Pasay City court where he testified against the Bolivian artist.

“As soon as he got near me, the Bolivian artist whispered to me that I punched him on the stomach. I did not answer,” Mañoza said.

Mañoza said he was just doing his job.

Mendoza spent 38 months at the Bilibid Prison, then deported back to Bolivia in 1974.