Manila Chronicle reporter Alex Allan (right) carrying Bolivian Benjamin Mendoza (center), who tried to kill Pope Paul VI. The photo appeared on the front page of The Manila Chronicle on November 28, 1970. Photo courtesy of the Lopez Museum
MANILA - Two men came to the airport in costume the day Pope Paul VI set foot in the Philippines in November 1970 -- the first Pope ever to visit the Philippines and the Far East.
The first, Alex Allan, a young reporter for "The Manila Chronicle," wore a local police officer's uniform.
The second -- Bolivian surrealist painter Benjamin Mendoza -- was dressed like a priest. He had come to the Philippines the year before the papal visit.
Allan recounted how he ended up wearing the police uniform: He wanted to cover the arrival of the pope, but failed to get a media pass.
“They were only allowing two reporters per paper,” he said. “The Malacanang reporter grabbed the first accreditation, and the second one went to the Senate reporter. I felt so bad. I was the one covering the Defense department, and the head of Task Force Holy Father was the Metrocom Chief, General Mariano Ordonez, yet I wasn’t allowed there. So I called Ordonez, and he said: ‘Punta ka rito bukas.’”
Ordonez couldn’t issue a media pass, but he gave Allan the uniform instead. “On the day of the pope’s arrival, there I was--walking with General Ordonez at the tarmac. He let go of his aide. I became his aide,” he said.
Within minutes of the pope’s arrival, Allan found himself two feet away from the pontiff and his would-be assassin—and yes, President Ferdinand Marcos and First Lady Imelda Marcos.
Little did Allan know that he was about to witness a historic moment. He saw the Bolivian artist attack the pope with a 9-inch kris, a dagger with a wavy blade.
“It was a very fast thing, somebody shouted 'Pare! Pare!' What they meant pala was, (the attacker) was a priest,” he said.
“I was surprised to find out he wasn’t really a priest,” said Allan, trying to describe Mendoza. “He didn’t look right. I couldn’t say that he was crazy or out of his mind because he was answering me. He was on a mission, that’s all he was saying. He kept repeating it.”
Mendoza was pushed to the ground by the pope’s secretary, Monsignor Pascale Macci. The 38-year-old Bolivian artist later received a karate blow by Stephen Cardinal Kim of Korea.
From there, Allan, a certain Sergeant Balacqua and Ordonez would take over. “(Mendoza) was struggling,” Allan said. “He was kicking. First thing I saw was the leg, so I grabbed it. We brought him to the van and then to a safe house.”
A photo of the three men lugging Mendoza to a van appeared on the front page of "The Manila Chronicle" the following day, November 28, 1970.
Metrocom chief's order
As Allan was about to write his story that day, things took an interesting turn. “Here comes Ordonez, and says: ‘Alex, hindi tayo ang nag-save kay pope, ha? It was Marcos who blocked him and karate chopped him. And it was Imelda who picked up the knife.’”
But Allan said he didn’t have the stomach for a tall tale. “I know what happened. He knows what happened. I couldn’t say that Marcos did it, because he didn’t do it.”
It had been a turbulent year for the Philippines, marked by violent anti-government protests, rising oil prices, rumors of martial law, a sex scandal involving the president, two super typhoons, and an assassination attempt.
But Allan said the pope’s visit somehow brought calm to a weary nation, albeit just for a few days. “Long after, people I talked to would say, I saw the pope. The fact that they saw him, had a rosary blessed by him, people said they felt holy water sprinkled on them. It was enough to have seen a pope.”
The Pope and his assassin had long gone, but Allan still remembers the two men -- and how he covered one of the biggest stories of his time.