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Did the U.S. Pay Off Massacre Suspects?

Alex Constantine - September 27, 2007

Larry D. Hatfield and Susan Ferriss

Fri, Dec. 1, 1995

The U.S. government may have paid off a San Francisco man and another former Salvadoran guerrilla in exchange for intelligence information, despite their alleged involvement in the 1985 massacre of four unarmed Marines and eight others in El Salvador, a U.S. senator says.

Citing classified testimony by officials of the CIA and the departments of State and Justice, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., identified Gilberto Osorio, of San Francisco, and Pedro Alvarez Andrade, believed living in New Jersey, as "two of the masterminds" behind the Zona Rosa massacre that resulted in the deaths of four Marines, two U.S. businessmen, six Salvadoran civilians and one of the attackers.

"Substantial evidence exists that suggests that the U.S. government paid these known killers in exchange for intelligence information - all the while allowing them to live like free Americans, unbeknownst to their neighbors," Shelby told a press conference in the nation's capitol Thursday.

He and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Arlen Spector, R-Pa., and Vice Chairman Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., sent a letter Thursday to Secretary of State Warren Christopher demanding a government-wide review of the case to determine any government wrongdoing, and whether Osorio and Alvarez could be prosecuted or deported.

Osorio, a U.S. citizen, denied being an informant or participating in the attack on the Marines. He said he did not know Alvarez.

"How can they link me as a paid informant unless they are trying to burn me here and within the FMLN," Osorio said Friday, referring to the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. ". . . Maybe they're trying to put me in bad standing with the guerrillas. Those things used to come up in El Salvador - whether I was a spy or not - because of the simple fact that I was an American. I don't think people believed it because I risked my life alongside them."

He said the FBI went to his house and his job on Thursday, but he wasn't at either place. They left cards asking him to call the bureau.

Shelby said the more he has learned about the case, the more upset he has become. "Obviously, there are many unanswered questions," he said, "but the thought that these killers got off without punishment and may not only be living in the United States, but also receiving federal funds, is beyond appalling. I will do everything I can to get to the bottom of this matter.

"We must determine, and I believe we will, whether our government in effect placed these criminals on retainer in exchange for intelligence information," Shelby said.

He said a preliminary review of classified testimony indicated that government officials "knew about and even assisted at least one of those responsible for the killings in entering the United States."

So far, he said, the only justifications he and the committee have received from the government for apparently helping Alvarez enter the country are humanitarian reasons.

The June 19, 1985, massacre occurred when seven guerrillas walked into a restaurant in the Zona Rosa district of San Salvador and opened fire on the Marines - embassy guards who were unarmed and dressed in civilian clothes.

The Mardoqueo Cruz urban guerrilla command of the FMLN took responsibility for the attack and the FMLN General Command issued a communique supporting it, restating its directive that U.S. military personnel in El Salvador were legitimate military targets.

Four Salvadorans eventually were prosecuted by the government for their roles in the slayings although President Jose Napoleon Duarte and the Salvadoran Supreme Court had to overturn, under U.S. pressure, a military court's dismissal of the charges; three were convicted and given prison sentences ranging from four to 25 years.

Osorio, 49, said he wasn't anywhere near San Salvador when the attack occurred. At the time he was in Morazan Province, working in the central committee of the FMLN as a secretary to a woman who is now in the Salvadoran Congress.

He denied in an Examiner interview in May any direct involvement in the planning or shooting of the Marines and others. In fact, he said, he was at least 60 miles away from the cafe near the U.S. Embassy where the shootings occurred.

That claim conflicted with the transcript of an earlier "60 Minutes" report which portrayed him as a guerrilla commandant who helped plan the assassinations.

He said Friday he felt "60 Minutes" misunderstood his comments about the attack.

Osorio said people in the FMLN discussed attacking Americans in a general sense. "We were discussing things like this at the level of cooks in the kitchen," he said.

"We always talked about the role of the U.S. If I planned, the cooks planned it, the masses planned it."

Osorio told The Examiner in May: "It (the assassination plan) was highly classified. Only the very top (command) knew. I did not know."

Still, he said, he was happy at news of the ambush: "We were all jubilant. It's war, you know what I mean?"

He and other leftists battling the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government often talked about the need to send an unmistakable message to Congress.

"There was a need . . . to practically declare war (on) the United States," he said. "We were telling the United States "Now we can kill you in the streets and you better watch out.' "

Greg Walker, a former Green Beret advisor in El Salvador and now an author-journalist, told The Examiner in May he believed Osorio knew in advance about the ambush of the unarmed Marines.

"As the chief of operations for the . . . group that carried it out, he certainly knew that Americans were going to be targeted and were going to be hit," Walker said.

"My feeling is that Gilberto knew very, very much what was going to happen and who was going to be hit. . . . He was the man who knew, the man who was involved in planning."

Osorio said he was no longer serving as chief of operations, a position that might have given him knowledge of the secret mission, at the time of the attack.

Osorio was born in the Mission District and was taken by his mother to her native El Salvador when he was 6 months old. He spent his first 18 years there, then returned to San Francisco, where he enrolled at City College and San Francisco State University.

He enlisted in the Air Force in 1966 and after several years as an aircraft mechanic was honorably discharged.

Osorio returned to El Salvador in 1980 and became operations chief in one of five guerrilla armies that formed the FMLN.

Operating under the nom de guerre Gerardo Zelaya, he directed a battalion of 300 in the northern province of San Vicente. When scouts told him that gringos were directing government troops against his unit, he told The Examiner, he gave orders to kill any American in the zone.

"They were very skillful and simply overran us," he said. "I passed the order that if an American was seen or somebody different, to target them, to kill them, to make an example because they weren't supposed to be there."

He returned to San Francisco when the war ended three years ago.

Osorio helped found the Mission Cultural Center in The City.

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