Lost in a dirty war What happened to U.S. priest close to Honduran rebels?

December 22, 1996|By Joseph E. Mulligan

During the 1980s, Honduras received hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to serve as a staging ground against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua and against the FMLN guerrilla forces of El Salvador. Hundreds of people "disappeared" in Honduras, victims of military units such as the CIA-trained Battalion 316.

A case in point is that of an American Roman Catholic priest, James Carney, who worked as a Jesuit in Honduras for 18 years, supporting peasant organizations, until he was expelled by the government in 1979.

After working in Nicaragua as a pastor and writing his autobiography, Carney entered Honduras with an armed revolutionary group in 1983, as their chaplain. The effort failed; some deserted, some were captured, many (including Carney) disappeared.

First reports were that the priest had been killed; then the Honduran army said he probably starved to death somewhere in the mountains.

His relatives were perplexed, however, when the officers handed them the priest's chalice and stole, allegedly found in an arms cache, but insisted they knew nothing of the whereabouts of the body.

Subsequently a former Honduran sergeant stated what he had heard about Carney: He had been captured and tossed out of a helicopter in the wilderness. The sergeant said he had seen the notes of the military's interrogation of Carney. (In late November 1996, Honduran human rights prosecutors took testimony from the sergeant before a judge [See Priest, 6f] in Toronto, where he is in exile.)

Some U.S. State Department files concerning Carney were declassified and released in March, and a larger set of documents on human rights in Honduras was released in September.

On Dec. 3, 34 members of Congress wrote to President Clinton demanding "the complete declassification of all U.S. documents pertaining to human rights violations in Honduras."

While the released papers reveal no smoking gun, they do show a lack of concern about the missing citizen. The State Department placed top priority, not on finding the body and identifying those responsible, but on parrying criticism from Carney's relatives and from some members of Congress.

On Sept. 9, 1983, Secretary of State George Shultz cabled the embassy in Tegucigalpa: "Coverage in the U.S. press of Honduran guerrilla defectors from the group Carney was with, has been minimal and spotty at best."

(Two had defected in early August and had been interrogated by the U.S. military attache; others allegedly defected but more likely were captured during September.)

"We view the information," continued Shultz, "as potentially very useful domestically in our efforts of continuing to expose the difference between public statements by Cuban/Sandinista leadership and the terrorist/destabilization activities that they persist in supporting.

"A comprehensive report, detailing to the extent possible, specifics on recruitment in Honduras, movement through Nicaragua and the kind of training given in Cuba could have a significant impact on U.S. public awareness of Cuban and Nicaraguan support to regional terrorist groups."

The Reagan administration showed little concern for the human rights of the captured revolutionaries, among them Carney; nowhere in the released State Department documents is there any indication of U.S. embassy initiatives to investigate the fate of the U.S. priest, except for the American consul's interviews of some "deserters" who launched a story that Carney may have died of starvation in the mountains. The embassy was as content as the Honduran military with this speculation.

What interested Shultz, as shown in his "confidential" cable, was the prospect of painting the Honduran incursion as part of an international communist conspiracy.

A State Department document dated Aug. 19, 1995 reported: "Fr. Carney case is dead. Front office does not want the case active. We aren't telling that to the family."

Florencio Caballero, the former Honduran sergeant now in exile in Canada, stated in an interview televised by the BBC in November 1987 that Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, as supreme commander of the armed forces in 1983, gave the order to execute Carney.

Alvarez, who had received training at the Argentine military academy and the U.S. Army School of the Americas, was deported from Honduras in 1984 and gunned down when he returned in 1989. (Caballero has also claimed that another School of the Americas graduate, Lt. Segundo Flores Murillo, interrogated Carney after the priest had been captured.)

A clear and disturbing profile of Alvarez emerges from the State Department files. In a "secret" cable of Feb. 11, 1981, Ambassador Jack Binns reported to the secretary of state on a meeting with Alvarez:

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