For almost six months, Leiver Padilla Mendoza has listened to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro vilify him on national television.
The president has accused the 34-year-old of being the cold-blooded paramilitary assassin behind the Oct. 1 stabbing of Robert Serra, a ruling-party lawmaker. The government says Padilla planned the murder for three months, and was paid $250,000 for the hit, which was designed to terrorize society and destabilize the socialist administration.
Speaking from a maximum security prison in rural Colombia, where he’s awaiting extradition, Padilla said he doesn’t recognize the person Maduro is describing.
He claims he’s a construction worker and sidewalk vendor who is too broke to hire a lawyer. He said he’s been a longtime supporter of the administration and that he was at home with his family the night of the congressman’s murder. He says Serra’s bodyguard, who is also under arrest, is trying to frame him.
“All of it is a lie,” he said in a telephone interview. “They are using me as a scapegoat. I’m being set up.”
The Miami Herald has been petitioning Colombian authorities for a jailhouse interview with Padilla for months. But with his extradition date approaching, Padilla insisted on a telephone interview. He fears that once he is sent to Venezuela he won’t be able to tell his side of the story.
The murder of Serra, a 27-year-old lawmaker and a rising star in the ruling PSUV party, stunned the nation. Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world, but Serra’s brutal death in his home, alongside his assistant, María Herrera, seemed to suggest no one was safe.
From the beginning, the administration said the murder was politically motivated. Maduro tied the assassination to protests that rocked the nation last year and suggested that Padilla was part of a Colombian paramilitary gang — which the president said is also called “El Colombia” — that had been hired by Venezuela’s opposition.
The murder was designed “to shock the state, society, and the country — to push us toward violence,” Maduro said on national television. “The objective was to destabilize the country.”
Within days of the murder, authorities had arrested the head of Serra’s security detail, Edwin Torres Camacho. Torres confessed to giving the gang access to Serra’s home and implicated Padilla and others, the government says.
Another key piece of evidence is security camera footage that appears to show six men entering Serra’s home the night of the attack. Indicating a figure in a white shirt whose face seems obscured by a dark motorcycle helmet, Maduro said Padilla was the second one inside and the author of the double murder.
But Padilla says it isn’t him in the grainy footage. The only identifiable photograph of him that has been shown on national television was taken off his wife’s Facebook page, he said.
Maduro “says that I entered the house and that he has the video that shows my face — I want them to show that video to the Venezuelan people so they can decide if justice is being done or not,” he said. “If they say they have our faces on video then why don’t they show them on public television?”
Padilla says he was home that Wednesday night with his wife, his sister-in-law and his godson’s wife. But his alibi is complicated: All three of them are among the 10 people under arrest in Caracas.
And Padilla does have a connection to the crime scene and Torres. He said that on Oct. 3, two days after the murder, Torres gave him a package to hold. Padilla won’t reveal what was inside until his case goes to trial, but he admits that accepting it was a mistake.
“They gave me things to keep and I didn’t think they would damage me in this way,” he said. “They are things that I would like to present to the court, so this whole process is fair and transparent.”
Padilla said he met Torres through the bodyguard’s father. Padilla and the older man were moved into the same temporary housing complex in the wake of flooding in 2011 that left tens of thousands homeless.
“I was close to his father,” Padilla said, but added that Edwin was never more than an acquaintance. When the bodyguard brought him the package, Padilla said he thought of it as doing a favor for his friend’s son.
A few days after that encounter, Padilla claims he left Caracas to follow a job lead. But when he began seeing his face on television, and saw Maduro calling him a paramilitary hit-man, he got scared and traveled overland to Cartagena, Colombia, where his mother lives. (Padilla was born in Venezuela to Colombian parents and has always lived in Caracas, despite Maduro’s insistence on describing him as a Colombian national.)
Padilla’s mother, Concepción Mendoza, recalls her son arriving in Cartagena on Oct. 22 or Oct. 23. At that point he was wanted by Interpol, and Colombian authorities arrested him in early November.
“He wasn’t scared of going to jail in Venezuela, rather that they would make him pay — or even kill him — for something he hadn’t done,” Mendoza said. “He was looking for safety until things cleared up.”
Padilla is currently in Cómbita maximum-security prison in the Colombian state of Boyacá. His request for political asylum here has been turned down and his public defender has warned him he could to be extradited in days.
Maduro has said that Padilla’s trial will help close “one of the saddest chapters” in Venezuela’s history.
Legal experts in Venezuela, however, say the case is so high profile and politicized it might be difficult for him to get a fair hearing.
“From the very beginning they said he was guilty because they want to close this case,” said Yvett Lugo the president of the Caracas Bar Association. Maduro has already condemned Padilla on national television and asked the courts for a stiff sentence, she said.
“In Venezuela there is no separation of powers,” she added. “The judicial branch is totally controlled.”
Padilla said he never met Serra and doesn’t know why he was killed. He also can’t explain why Torres is trying to frame him. But he says jailing him will not help the stricken country find the truth.
“They’re looking for justice,” he said, “but they don’t realize they’re committing an injustice by accusing me of these things.”