The doomed followers of cult leader Jim Jones, who practiced a fanatical form of old-time religion blended with socialism, had chosen as their last retreat a primitive jungle enclave in a sugar republic with Marxist leanings.
The mass slaughter by suicide and murder, unprecedented except in times of war, occurred in a remote corner of Guyana, a country about the size of Kansas with 810,000 inhabitants scattered over 83,000 square miles of mostly rain forests.
Deep in these jungles, 150 miles west of the capital city of Georgetown on the northeastern coast of South America, some 1,200 followers of the Rev. Jones, 48, a former chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority, had lived in a commune called Jonestown.
Today it is a city of the dead, victim of self-inflicted genocide.
Reports reaching Georgetown told of hundreds poisoned or murdered in a mass suicide pact following the massacre of a California congressman and four of his followers.
Even with warnings that the members of Jones' "People's Temple" had formed just such a suicide pact, it is small wonder that Guyana was able to do little to prevent the slaughter.
Guyana, known as British Guinea before it won its independence from Britain in 1980, has a total armed force of only 2,000 personnel, including the army, navy and air force.
The army is equipped with only four personnel carriers.
There are only four paved airstrips in the entire country, none with a runway more than 8,000 feet.
Even in the capital of Georgetown, a city of 187,000 on the coast, outsiders fear violence. Americans tell of street gangs called "choke and rob boys" who wrap a chain around the neck of their victim, pummel him, slice open his pockets and take his wallet.
Ron Javers of the San Francisco Chronicle, who survived the Saturday massacre at the Port Kaituma near the Venezuelan border, reported that only one policeman was at the airstrip when the cultists cut down Rep. Leo J. Ryan and four other Americans.
The lone policeman was carrying only a single-shell shotgun and was disarmed the moment the attackers from the People's Temple opened fire on the Americans' airplane from a nearby truck and trailer.
Javers said four Guyanese solders were at the far end of the airstrip but did nothing. He said the soldiers said they did not fire at the attackers for fear of hitting the Americans.
Guyana, sandwiched between Venezuela and Surinam, is said to have the only orthodox socialist government on the continent of South America
The Americans and British who helped install Linden Forbes Burnham as prime minister 12 years ago were dismayed when Burnham in the early 1970s announced he was dedicated to building a "cooperative socialist state" and became friendly with Havana and Moscow.
A producer of sugar, rice and bauxite, Guyana has been in severe economic straits with unemployment never falling below 20%.
Just over half of the country's population is of East Indian descent, with another 35% black. The rest are mostly Americans, Chinese, Portuguese or other Europeans.
The official language is English, but on the streets it is mixed with East Indian dialects, Chinese, Portuguese and the patois of the blacks.
While the Church of England is the dominant religious group, there are also some Roman Catholics, Hindus and Moslems.
Andrew Young, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, visiting Georgetown last year in a swing through Latin America, declared that the Carter administration planned to increase its financial assistant to Guyana from $1.1 million to $12.3 million over the next three years, mainly to build roads and improve agriculture.
Later that same August a strike by workers in the sugar fields brought the industry to a virtual standstill, and prompted the government to send soldiers into the fields to cut the cane.
In April of this year Burnham visited Moscow for meetings with Soviet leaders Alexei Kosygin and Leonid Brezhnev.
The two countries reportedly signed agreements on cooperation in the fishing industry and on the sale of Soviet machinery and equipment to Guyana on an installment plan.