The disappearance of the Rev. James Francis Carney is significant because Carney had been a U.S. citizen and because of credible allegations that U.S. military and intelligence personnel were directly involved. A Jesuit priest from St. Louis, Carney began working as a missionary in Honduras in 1961. He dedicated his life there to helping organize the poor in their struggle for land and labor rights. Carney took the name “Padre Guadalupe” to show his reverence for the Virgin of Guadalupe. His deep connection with the country and its people led him to renounce his U.S. citizenship and become a naturalized Honduran citizen in 1974. Carney wrote in his autobiography, published posthumously as “To Be a Christian Is... To Be a Revolutionary”: “Why are the campesinos so poor in this rich valley? They are farmers who do not have any land! We rebel against that, even if they call us communists, even if they kill us. We have to wake our people up, tell them to get organized, help them to change the situation.”
Because of Carney’s work for social change, the Honduran government in 1979 revoked his citizenship and expelled him. Carney relocated to a parish in Nicaragua and worked with campesinos there during the early years of the Sandinista government. He continued, however, to feel an inseparable tie with Honduras. In 1983 he became chaplain to a group of 96 Honduran guerrillas from the Central America Revolutionary Workers Party who were training in Nicaragua.
Their mission was to return to Honduras and launch a fight for land reform and social justice. The armed group entered Honduras in July 1983 and and began operating in the remote, mountainous region of the Olancho province. However, on Aug. 1 a pair of deserters alerted the Honduran Army to the group's presence. The military immediately launched Operation Patuca to locate and capture the guerrillas, and over the course of two months they were handily defeated by Honduran troops with U.S. logistic support. Most members of the group were killed, captured, deserted or died of starvation; as many as 70 may have been executed. On Sept. 19, 1983 the Honduran military held a press conference to publicize its success to date in the Olancho counterinsurgency operation; it reported Carney’s participation with the group and displayed his religious vestments, chalice and bible, which had reportedly been found in an arms cache. On Sept. 21, a Honduran Army spokesman announced the priest had been killed during a combat operation three days earlier; however, the following day a spokesman revised that account, saying Carney, who was suffering from exhaustion caused by malnutrition, died while attempting to flee Honduran troops.