The Tragic Christian

Father James Carney left St. Louis to work with the poor in Honduras, putting him at odds with both church and state. Fifteen years after his mysterious death, a new CIA report raises more questions than answers.

Writing from his shack in northern Nicaragua, Carney recalled his own naive encounter with the Holy See, when he went to Rome after the war. "I was amazed at the riches of the Vatican palace and museum, and at the medieval pomp of the pope, entering St. Peter's Cathedral like a king seated on his throne," Carney wrote. "He was carried on the shoulders of eight of his soldiers, with their medieval uniforms, swords and lances.... Now in 1981, when I am, at last, a revolutionary, you can imagine how much I hate this counter-Christianity that is our Catholic Church. Jesus and his first pope, Peter, went around without shoes, as poor workers, without a home and without any political power. Everything about the Vatican's pomp and wealth now fills me with disgust."

About a month before he set off for the Olancho province with the guerrillas, Carney resigned from the Jesuit order.

Soldier of the Cross
By the time Carney and the guerrillas crossed the Coco River into Honduras, in July 1983, the last gusts of the Cold War had shifted south, propelled by the victory of the leftist Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. Neighboring Honduran territory became an encampment for the U.S.-armed contra forces, under the command of former officers in Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza's National Guard. At the Pentagon, propagandists continued spinning stories of Salvadoran leftists receiving military support from the Sandinistas. Meanwhile, the Honduran military, also a beneficiary of gringo largess, stood poised to respond to the perceived threat of a Sandinista invasion, as thousands of U.S. Army troops were contemporaneously being deployed in a series of open-ended maneuvers in northern Honduras.

Defying these overwhelming odds, Jose Maria Reyes Mata, the leader of the guerrillas, with whom Carney had cast his lot, marched straight into enemy-held territory. Reyes Mata modeled himself after Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the martyred Cuban revolutionary who was captured and executed by the Bolivian military in 1967. Reyes Mata had served under Guevara in Bolivia. Both men were former physicians, and like his comrade, Reyes Mata would die in a failed insurgency. He also mimicked Guevara by chronicling his defeat in a diary. But in his case, a few of the diary's pages somehow ended up missing. The lacuna adds to the mystery surrounding Carney's fate.

This much is known: Reyes Mata planned to foment a popular insurrection, with Carney -- by some accounts -- acting as a political officer, under the nom de guerre of Mario. The strategy didn't work. By early August, two deserters turned themselves in to the Honduran army. Alerted to the insurgency, Alvarez, the commander of the Honduran armed forces, ordered a full-scale attack. The U.S. Army provided logistical support for this counterinsurgency campaign, according to the CIA report.

It is impossible to ascertain exactly what transpired next, although uncensored portions of the CIA intelligence reports paint a picture in which the guerrillas splintered, their morale plummeted and desertions increased. Fragmented details from often-conflicting sources create a mosaic of possible scenarios surrounding the priest's death. Among the unanswered questions:

* What was Carney's role with the guerrillas? The question of whether the priest traveled with the group as a chaplain, political officer or armed combatant has never been clarified, because existing documents are often contradictory. A Defense Intelligence Agency report, for instance, lists Mario (Carney's pseudonym) as the only guerrilla whose name is not attached to the serial number of one or more M-16 rifles. This bolsters the theory that Carney accompanied the guerrilla group as a chaplain, not a combatant. In the CIA report, however, Carney is reported to have carried a pistol. A separate State Department cable notes that Carney expressed a willingness to use the weapon to commit suicide rather than be captured, according to an unnamed source.

* What were the circumstances of Carney's death? Early in the expedition, Carney is reported to have argued with Reyes Mata over religion. Reyes Mata later exacerbated the debate by ordering the execution of a subordinate. The alleged deserters' accounts tell of Carney becoming despondent, lagging behind and eventually having to be carried. His inability to keep up with the column could plausibly be attributed to his lame knee. At 58 years of age, he was also the oldest member of the guerrilla organization. The official Honduran military explanation is that Carney died of starvation after being left behind.

A Honduran helicopter crew is reported to have captured an aide to Carney, who then led them to the body of the priest, which was said to have been found in a hammock. In other versions of the story, the aide covered Carney's body with leaves. There is no way to confirm these suppositions, however, because the aide was conveniently eliminated. The CIA report states: "In regard to Carney, (deleted) stated only that a young guerrilla who accompanied the priest had seen him dead. The guerrilla covered the priest with leaves and left him in the jungle. The guerrilla was subsequently killed (deleted)."

* Why are details concerning Carney's death so elusive? Carney, of course, was only one victim of the Olancho counterinsurgency campaign. A CIA reference indicates 30 or 40 of the guerrillas were executed as a part of the operation. A more recent estimate, contained in a Feb. 27, 1997, intelligence report, alludes to "a mass grave that purportedly contained the remains of Carney." The source of this information, an unnamed Honduran citizen, "claimed he had evaded the Honduran military and witnessed them prepare a mass grave for between 70-90 of his deceased comrades in the Nueva Segovia region." In the most blatant discrepancy, the Honduran military announced that Reyes Mata had died in battle on Sept. 18, two days after local newspaper accounts claimed that he had been captured.

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