On the approximate anniversary of the disappearance of US-born Jesuit priest James Carney in Honduras, civil society organizations sustain the memories of the disappeared.

On Saturday, September 17th, the Witness for Peace Honduras International Team attended an event in the town of El Progreso commemorating the 1983 disappearance of Father James Carney, a Jesuit priest better known locally as Padre Guadalupe. The event was co-hosted by the Equipo Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación (ERIC, or the Reflection, Investigation and Communication Team in English), a Jesuit social justice organization dedicated to intensive research projects, and Radio Progreso. Speakers included Padre Ismael Moreno, director of Radio Progreso and ERIC, and Berta Oliva, the director of COFADEH (The Committee of the Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras).

The exact date of Padre Guadalupe’s death is not known, but the commemorations are held around September 16th every year to approximate the day of his murder. Thirty-three years after his death, the facts surrounding it are still shrouded in official secrecy. What we do know is that, during his time in Honduras, the Chicago-born Padre Guadalupe was increasingly radicalized and, by extension, increasingly viewed as an enemy of the state, leading to his exile without trial in 1979. He re-entered the country as an unarmed chaplain for a guerrilla unit, and was disappeared shortly thereafter, with the most likely outcome being execution by Honduran state security forces.

Padre Guadalupe’s legacy in Honduras is profound – one local community named itself after him, and his passionate dedication to social justice through faith reverberates in the Honduran left to this day. His autobiography, available for free download in English and Spanish at the link above, is a must-read for anyone interested in social justice, revolutionary movements, or the history of Honduras.

The event, while focused on Padre Guadalupe, also served as a reminder that his death, while unthinkably tragic, was not unique – COFADEH has documented the cases of more than 200 disappeared in Honduras over the course of decades, and in spite of changing governments and constitutions. In the popular imagination, disappearances are more commonly associated with the right-wing military regimes of Chile and Argentina, but as COFADEH shows, Honduras has its own tragic tradition of disappearances, beginning in the 1970s and continuing until the years following the 2009 coup.

The singular tragedy of disappearances is highlighted by the approximate anniversary that commemorates Padre Guadalupe’s. It is the lack of knowing – for the families of the disappeared, especially, and for the community and country at large – that compounds the tragedy of a presumed execution. It is families who do not have an exact date to put on headstones, who do not have remains to bury, who do not have even the cold comfort of knowing when, where, and how their loved ones died (or whether they died at all) that makes disappearances such a profoundly and deeply tragic crime. And beyond this, the lack of knowledge in the forensic sense lends itself to official deniability that only decades of deeply intensive investigations can undo. In a country where impunity for crimes committed in broad daylight reigns as the norm, the crimes buried in a shroud of darkness take on an ominousness nearly impossible to describe.

Padre Guadalupe Presente

But at the event, the few hundred attendees stood in stark and moving resistance. During Berta Oliva’s speech, she started a call-and-response with, “Padre Guadalupe, presente!” Padre Guadalupe is here. She built to a crescendo, saying the names of the disappeared, with the crowd affirming their presence. “Presente! Presente! Presente!”

As long as people like Oliva and Padre Melo, and organizations like ERIC, Radio Progreso, and COFADEH, continue to speak the names of the disappeared, and to investigate the causes and dates and times of their deaths, US-trained and funded Honduran security forces can never truly disappear them. As the crowd affirmed, through their words and through the unbelievable courage of their very presence in a country where protests are increasingly criminalized, the disappeared are, through their works, their deeds, and their memories, still here. We must say their names.

Pa’lante,
Bryan & Ryan