On eve of extradition, suspect in Venezuelan lawmaker’s killing maintains innocence

Leiver Padilla, 34, is accused of killing Venezuelan Deputy Robert Serra in October. From jail in Colombia he maintains his innocence.
Leiver Padilla, 34, is accused of killing Venezuelan Deputy Robert Serra in October. From jail in Colombia he maintains his innocence.

Leiver Padilla Mendoza, the man accused of killing a Venezuelan deputy last year in hopes of destabilizing the government, will be deported from Colombia in coming days after his extradition was approved, Colombia’s presidency confirmed Wednesday.

Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro has repeatedly called Padilla, 34, the author of the Oct. 1 killing of legislator Robert Serra and his assistant, María Herrera, which rattled the nation. In addition, Maduro claims Padilla goes by the alias “El Colombia,” is the head of a paramilitary gang, and committed the crime to sow terror and fear.

In a series of telephone interviews with the Miami Herald from a maximum security prison in Boyacá, Colombia, Padilla has maintained his innocence and said that he was set up by Serra's bodyguard at the time, Edwin Torres, who is in Venezuelan custody and also facing murder charges in the case.

Earlier this week, Padilla said he feared that the environment is too polarized in his home country to get a fair trial.

“When you have the president telling the whole nation that you did it, it’s easy for people not to believe a poor man like me,” he said.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed off on the extradition request this week, his office confirmed. And while Padilla has 10 days to appeal, in the past he’s said he doesn’t have a lawyer in Colombia or Venezuela who can help him with the paperwork.

“The government never heard his side of the story,” Padilla’s mother, Concepción Mendoza, said. “Everything they’re saying about him there is a lie.”

According to Padilla, he was at home with his family the night of Serra’s murder. However, the relatives he claims as his alibi are among the 10 people in jail pending investigation.

Padilla said that two days after the crime, Torres asked him to hold onto a cardboard box in exchange for 2,000 bolivares, or about $19 at the time. Padilla said his curiosity got the better of him and that inside the box he found two rifles. Authorities have said that Serra and Herrera were stabbed to death, but Padilla fears those rifles will be used as evidence to tie him to the scene.

“I don’t know why he set me up,” he said of Torres, whom he has described as a casual acquaintance. “Obviously, if I knew what was inside the box I would have never accepted it.”

Padilla said he fled Venezuela to his mother’s home on the Colombian coast only after Maduro began identifying him as a culprit. He was arrested in Colombia on Nov. 2.

Venezuela has the world’s second-highest murder rate, but the killing of Serra, a 27-year-old rising star in the ruling PSUV party, stunned the nation.

Venezuelan officials say they have ample proof of Padilla’s involvement, including confessions from other defendants and security camera footage. The government has repeatedly shown grainy video of six people entering Serra’s home the night of the murder and identified Padilla as the second one through the door. However, in the portion that has been broadcast, there are no clear images of anyone’s face, and Padilla and his family insist he wasn’t there.

“It was [Padilla] who directed the operations, planned the crime and carried out the killing,” Maduro said weeks after the murder, according to the state-run AVN news agency. “He had all the details of what Robert [Serra] was doing, where he was going and how he moved.”

Maduro said the crime scene was designed to look like a robbery but was intended to provoke violence and fear. He also said the murder was tied to opposition protests in early 2014.

Padilla said he’s eager to testify, but he’s worried about his safety in Venezuela’s jails.

“Most people in Venezuela are convinced that I did it,” he said. “And I’m scared that if I go there, someone’s going to kill me.”