Venezuela's newly elected President Nicolas Maduro has personally ordered the arrest of a 35-year-old filmmaker from California for fomenting post-election violence on behalf of the U.S. government.
Maduro said Thursday he personally ordered Timothy Tracy's arrest on suspicion of "creating violence in the cities of this country." Venezuela's interior minister said Tracy was working for U.S. intelligence, paying right-wing youth groups to hold violent demonstrations in order to destabilize the country after Maduro's narrow election win last week.
"They don't have CIA in custody. They don't have a journalist in custody. They have a kid with a camera. He does not really know what he's doing."
Tracy's friends and family told The Associated Press that he had been in Venezuela since last year making a documentary about the confrontation between the country's opposition and its socialist government, which is struggling to maintain its once-high popularity after the death of charismatic President Hugo Chavez.
The Georgetown University English graduate had directed or produced at least two previous documentaries, the 2009 "American Harmony," about competitive barbershop quartet singing, and the recent Discovery Channel program "Under Siege," about terrorism and smuggling across the U.S./Canada border.
"They don't have CIA in custody. They don't have a journalist in custody. They have a kid with a camera," said Aengus James, a friend and associate of Tracy's in Hollywood, California. "He does not really know what he's doing."
Tracy had been detained twice before by Venezuela's SEBIN intelligence police. The last time was five days before the April 14 presidential election when he was taking video of a pro-government rally in the port city of Puerto Cabello, said an associate who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to endanger people inside Venezuela.
The U.S. Embassy in Caracas declined immediate comment, citing citizen privacy.
Prosecutors said Tracy had been detained Wednesday evening as he tried to fly out of Simon Bolivar International Airport in the capital, Caracas.
Tracy's father Emmet, of Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, said that in his last email his son had asked for some airline miles so he could fly to the United States so they could be together for the father's 80th birthday.
The prosecution said he would be brought to a court hearing Thursday to be formally charged under Venezuela's anti-terrorism laws.
The police had been friendly to Tracy during the previous incidents, with some even agreeing to appear in his documentary, the filmmaker's father said. Emmet Tracy said, however, that the family had begun urging his son to leave the country in light of the volatile political situation.
"Frankly it's the kind of scenario that we were concerned about and kept telling him," Emmet Tracy said.
Tensions in the country have been rising since Maduro beat opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in the April 14 election by less than 2 percentage points. The government has been escalating accusations that the opposition fomented violence directed at ruling party supporters and official buildings in the days after the election. The opposition is demanding an audit of the vote, which it says was stolen by fraud.
The Venezuela government also has long vilified the U.S., accusing successive administration of trying to undermine the left-wing government here. Tracy is the first American in recent memory to be detained on politically related charges, however.
"I gave the order that they detain him immediately, hand him to prosecutors with the proof that there is because nobody can be destabilizing this country, whatever they believe, because they're on the side of the bourgeoisie, no," Maduro said.
James said Tracy's Spanish is passable but not great. He said Tracy "literally has no political agenda. He is very sympathetic to all sides. He's telling stories about people and what their life is like there."
"He has been involved in telling stories that told that international component. But he certainly never worked for the government," said James.
"He's trying to tell a human story," said James. "My fear is that he's gone in deeper than he should have."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.