In a city where using a cell phone on the street even in a good neighborhood is considered reckless because of rampant street crime, Tim spent most of the next seven months filming in the most dangerous barrios of Caracas, places like 23 de Enero and Catia. He did so with a $20,000 camera on his shoulder, and he never had to defend himself.
“Take the South Bronx of the 1970s, transport it to the age of crack in the 1980s, overpopulate it and throw in Fidel Castro during the revolution, and that’s 23 de Enero,” says Jon Lee Anderson, who in his 35-year career as a foreign correspondent has filed stories from the most harrowing war zones on the planet. Anderson has written extensively about Venezuela, including a portrait of present-day Caracas for The New Yorker that appeared in January, exploring the same barrios that Tim was filming at the time. “In a place like Caracas, the abnormal is normal,” says Anderson. “There were times when I was in the proximity of people who would have had no compunction to shooting me. You adopt a certain body language, you try to be inoffensive, you do this, you do that, but you also have to push it. I pushed it. Tim pushed it. It’s just what you have to do.”
To understand Venezuela, Tim needed to learn the ways of the poorer Chavistas—how they operated, the blurred lines between political activism and criminality. The fact that he didn’t speak much Spanish allowed him to learn the language in the most organic way possible, from his sources.
Tim soon discovered his affection for Venezuela was reciprocal. While gaining the trust of hard men whose leader was constantly proselytizing about the gringo devils of the USA, he found that Venezuelan girls couldn’t get enough of him. He ended up choosing a guy named Jhonny as the focus of his film. Jhonny was a member of El Frente, one of 23 de Enero’s most powerful colectivos, the pro-Chávez radicalized street gangs who handled law enforcement in the police-free barrios. Jhonny was also one of Caracas’s infamous motorizados, the independent motorcycle taxi drivers who weave through the city’s gridlock at breakneck speeds. A girl Tim knew once told him a story about being on the back of one of these bikes when her motorizado calmly pulled out a pistol and tapped it on the window of the car next to him. The terrified driver gave up his wallet and phone, and the motorizado sped off. At the next stoplight, the terrified girl offered up her own possessions and begged for him not to kill her. The motorizado was offended. “We have principles in Venezuela,” he said. “We never rob the customers.”
Through Jhonny, Tim hoped to gain a greater understanding of how 8 million people could have voted for a guy who, over 14 years, had squandered billions and left the country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
Tim’s identity was now inextricably tied up in the movie. He was spending his modest trust fund on it, and he decided to stay in the country after his first and second arrests. In both instances, he got pinched for filming images that were off-limits—first a sniper on a roof at a Chávez rally in October 2012, then the presidential palace in February 2013. In both cases he was released after three days, following some interrogation and a lot of sitting around. The police, it seemed, were far less threatening than the dwellers of the barrios where Tim was spending his days and nights.
Early in 2013, as Tim continued to shoot footage, events in Venezuela took a turn for the worse. On March 5 the charismatic president Hugo Chávez succumbed to cancer, leaving Nicolás Maduro—a former bus driver who had risen through the ranks to become Chávez’s vice president and handpicked successor—to run things. Maduro had none of his mentor’s extraordinary charisma. Despite having more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia, Venezuela was in shambles. Maduro was losing control. In order to buy himself more time, he’d need to manufacture a distraction.
April 24, 2013
Tim awoke after having spent the night with two senoritas, which explains why he missed a morning flight out of Caracas. He had two birthdays to attend in the U.S.: his dad’s 80th in Michigan and his close friend Sasha Bushnell’s 30th, which he’d be hosting in Laurel Canyon. To assure maximum awesomeness, he had gotten a friend to reinforce his chandelier to safely hold the swinging weight of “one full-grown male and one petite female.”
He booked himself on the next flight out. As soon as he got through immigration at Simón Bolívar International Airport, he was suddenly surrounded by a group of armed commandos, who had been waiting for him. He was handcuffed and led downstairs to a detention center. At this point he was more annoyed than frightened—he’d been through this before—but something felt off. There were a lot more guns in the room, and his every movement was monitored. Now they were fucking with his travel. He thought he could talk his way out of it.
“I’ve got a three P.M. flight that I don’t think you want me to miss,” Tim explained with exaggerated selfimportance.
“No big deal,” the supervising commando responded with a smile. “If you miss the flight we’ll just put you on a private plane and send you back.”
That’s when Tim knew something was really wrong. There was no way they were going to put him on a private plane.
He was right. That night Tim was transferred to Helicoide, a massive, pyramid-shaped structure in central Caracas that served as the headquarters for SEBIN. Upon arrival he was whisked into an interrogation room, where Elvis Ramírez—the director of Helicoide—went at him hard with accusations that he was CIA. Tim denied everything, but Ramírez could not have cared less. The next day, Maduro and Interior Minister Rodríguez Torres went on a public-relations offensive, accusing Tim on live TV of heading the April Connection.
Two days after his arrest, Tim was transported in a convoy of 20 vehicles packed with special-forces soldiers to another prison near the airport for a change-of-venue hearing. While he waited, prisoners in the adjacent cells began a horrifying chant: “Kill the gringo! Kill the gringo!” The color drained from Tim’s face, and he began to shake. When he was in the barrios filming the Chavistas, he would often hear his subjects parrot the absurd lies Chávez had fed them about the Sodom and Gomorrah that was the United States. Tim had a nickname for that brand of misinformation: “weaponizing the Kool-Aid.” The Kool-Aid had most certainly been weaponized.
One can only imagine the shock when the phone rang in the home of Tim Tracy’s parents back in Grosse Pointe Farms. Following the initial wave of news reports, family and friends closed ranks on the advice of Tim’s Venezuelan attorney, Daniel Rosales, who was handling “back-channel” negotiations and supervising his criminal defense. Contact with the press was prohibited for fear of provoking Maduro, who had been doubling down on his anti-Americanism.
Soon after Tim’s incarceration, President Obama went on record to say that the charges against Tim were “ridiculous.” Maduro responded by calling Obama “the grand chief of devils.” Obama’s comment hadn’t done Tim any favors, but Maduro’s crazy reply alerted the international community that Tim’s arrest was nothing but a cynical ploy by a desperate president who would resort to anything to shore up support. In other words, Tim was clearly innocent. He was no spy. Maduro had no evidence whatsoever, but he didn’t care.
Maduro’s regime was losing power by the day. By arresting Tim, he was taking a page out of his mentor’s playbook: When in trouble, unite the base against a common enemy—capitalist oppressors. Divert attention away from domestic turmoil by resurrecting the ogre of the U.S. and establishing a direct connection between the U.S. and the opposition. Maduro was portraying his administration as capable defenders of national security at a time when civil war was looking like a distinct possibility.
Various “Free Tim Tracy” movements got under way—from rumors of American celebrities including Oliver Stone and Sean Penn personally texting Maduro to a committed effort by retired congressman Bill Delahunt, who during his 14 years on Capitol Hill was known as the only U.S. politician on good terms with Chávez. Delahunt got on board with Tim’s cause thanks to the efforts of Tim’s brother Tripp, who had an old Harvard buddy whose family knew the former diplomat.
Meanwhile, the situation in Venezuela continued to unravel. The week after Tim’s arrest, a wild fistfight broke out in parliament between supporters of Maduro and the opposition, leaving men in suits bloodied and bruised. Three weeks later, the president was humiliated when a recording of a conversation between a Cuban intelligence officer and Mario Silva, the Rush Limbaugh of the Chavistas movement, was leaked to the press. Silva’s main point was summed up in the following sentence: “We are in a world of shit, my friend.” So was Tim.
Tim spent 36 days in Helicoide, an experience that, given the circumstances, was actually not that bad. His fellow inmates were a cast of characters worthy of a Dirty Dozen remake. There was David from El Salvador, who lent Tim his iPod in exchange for Ping-Pong lessons; Steve, a.k.a. Boris, a funloving Russian arms and ecstasy dealer; Assan, a chess champion and financier from Lebanon whose only crime was losing his passport; and Walid Makled García, a.k.a. El Arabe, who until his capture in 2011 was one of the world’s most powerful drug lords.
Tim fit in immediately and within days was holding his own in the nightly Ping-Pong tournament. He spent hours writing obsessively in his diary and taking advantage of the gym. He had faith that when judgment time came on June 11, he’d be exonerated and could go back to making his movie. If you lose hope in a situation like this, you slip into darkness, he thought to himself.