Mariana van Zeller


As you watch journalist Mariana van Zeller chase down a lead on the counterfeiting business in Peru or interview a masked con artist in Jamaica in the upcoming series Trafficked, it’s easy to feel like you’re screening a new Hollywood movie or edgy OTT thriller. The new National Geographic series—already renewed for a second season before its December 2 premiere—takes audiences deep into black markets across the globe. It reveals how these underground trades work and offers some surprising insights into the people who are responsible for the illicit trade in money, drugs, weapons and more. The Portuguese-born Peabody Award-winning journalist has spent much of her career exploring the business of trafficking and its impact on the sellers, buyers and everyone else caught in the crosshairs. As she tells TV Real Weekly, the opportunity to do a series like Trafficked was a dream come true.

***Image***TV REAL: How did the series come about?
VAN ZELLER: I’ve been covering black markets and the underworld for over 15 years. It’s always been the type of reporting I was attracted to. When I was at Nat Geo working for Explorer as a correspondent, I kept pitching ideas about the underworld, because it’s what I’m passionate about. I ended up doing a couple: one was about a drug war in Mexico, the other about tunnels in Gaza that goods are trafficked into. I think [Nat Geo] liked those two stories and I went back to them and said, I want to do a show about this world, where in every single episode we try to penetrate one of these trafficking networks. They liked the idea, and within a few months, we were in production, which was incredible. It was a dream come true for me. I can’t think of a better place to do this for than Nat Geo.

TV REAL: How did you come up with the initial list of the trafficking networks you wanted to explore?
VAN ZELLER: Choosing the topics is complicated. There are lots of things we are fascinated by, but we know it’s going to be almost impossible to penetrate. There were a lot of times we thought there was no way we’d be able to get the access we needed to tell the story from the inside. But we hired an incredible team of people and Nat Geo allowed us to spend months in preproduction on these stories. The hardest part is getting access, so it’s months and months of trying to find a way into these worlds. In 99 percent of the cases, we’ve been able to penetrate them.

One thing that is different from the past reporting I’ve done on this is, we wanted to make it feel premium. I’ve done a lot of very raw reporting. With this, we wanted to elevate the look and feel. The crew is bigger than what I’m used to working with. I was worried about that, given the kind of reporting we do. Usually, the smaller the crew, the smaller the footprint, the easier it is. We had six people on the ground, two cameras, one sound person, but it worked. We combined these two worlds of access and beautiful cinematography. I wasn’t sure if it was going to work, but it has. That’s what makes it special.

TV REAL: For the traffickers who let you into their criminal lives, what is their motivation?
VAN ZELLER: It’s super fascinating. I think it’s a combination of factors. I’ve worked a lot in Mexico, where there are many splinter groups. So even though I’m talking to the Sinaloa cartel, there are different groups within that. [Talking to] an international organization like National Geographic, which is known all around the world, and an American crew with big cameras who are interested in their stories and their business and what they do, it’s very much an ego-driven thing. And they’re showing off to their competitors, and ultimately to the government itself: “We have this power and we’re doing this right under your noses.” In the counterfeiting story we did in Peru, you had these people who have spent years and years of their lives honing their craft. They have enormous pride in the work they do. And they have no one to talk to about it. For a lot of them, their families don’t know what they do. We’re giving them a chance to talk about something they are very passionate about and very good at. And then there are cases where it’s a mix of ego and not giving a damn. They also really trust that we will protect their identity. It’s an opportunity to tell the world, I’m the best at this, I don’t care what anyone thinks, but my identity will be protected so law enforcement will never actually catch me.

TV REAL: How does your relationship with law enforcement work? I imagine they are eager to hear what you have learned from your own investigative work.
VAN ZELLER: My job as a journalist is to report the facts. A lot of the access I get into this world comes with an absolute obligation on my part to protect my sources. When we’re working with law enforcement, we’re not telling them what we’re seeing on the other side. There have been cases where law enforcement has asked us for details, and that’s just not something we feel comfortable doing. Not only could this harm the people who spoke to us, but when you’re talking about Mexican cartels, it could harm us. If they find out we’re disclosing information after we promised them we wouldn’t, they wouldn’t be happy and the consequences of that are scary.

TV REAL: The Nat Geo name doesn’t carry the baggage that a news network like CNN or Fox News would. Does that help you as you’re convincing people to speak to you?
VAN ZELLER: Absolutely. Not only does it not come with baggage, but it also is known all around the world. Whether we are in Thailand or Israel or Laos, people recognize it, they trust it, which is very important when we’re doing this kind of work. They tend to trust us as a team—if we’re employed by National Geographic, then we have to be serious journalists and have to be telling the truth about what we intend to do here. It has helped us open doors all around the world. I can’t think of another place that would do that.

TV REAL: I know you can turn the cameras off or disguise their identities, but how do you get these traffickers to trust you enough to show you how they work?
VAN ZELLER: There are a lot of things we’ve learned along the way. One of the big concerns always when we try to get access to these groups is that they don’t know who we are and they immediately suspect we are law enforcement. Who are these people who want to see our drug labs and our counterfeiting factories? A huge part of it is trying to convince them, and that involves sending links to my past work so they can verify and trust we’re journalists. We’ve hit the ground on several occasions and thought we were going to get access and everything changed and we had to start from scratch. We’ve learned that once we hit the ground, that first encounter is crucial. We can be talking for months and weeks, but then there’s that first encounter. Sometimes that happens with just me. We had situations in Mexico like that. It was the middle of the night and we were trying to get access for the gun smuggling story. A person was going to give us access to this transaction happening on an island in the Gulf of Mexico. In order to give us access, he wanted to meet me first—just me, not my crew. It was the middle of the night and I went out to meet this guy. The fixer I worked with came with me. It was nerve-racking. I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do. And then I got there and he said, Why should I trust you? I showed him my profile, my Instagram account showing photos of me with armed, masked men all around the world! He went and spoke to his boss and the next day we were told to meet at a port and a boat was there to pick us up and they took us to the island. At the end of being able to film the whole operation, where they were selling guns to someone, I said, Do you trust us? He said, “No, I still don’t, I’m not 100 percent sure you are who you say you are. That’s why I have several gunmen around us right now, in case things go south.” It’s certainly been a learning curve. We’ve managed to stay safe. And at the end of the day, it’s not in their interest to harm us. In many cases, once we get that access, we are under their protection. Honesty is so important: disclosing why we’re there, what we’re doing, and then trying to understand [them]. The most fascinating thing about this series is that even though it is about criminals, it has taught me, a­­nd I hope it shows, that the world isn’t so black and white. These people, who we think of as criminals, are moms and dads and sons and daughters and are a lot more like us than we’d like to think. Once I start asking questions about their lives and their motivations, I think they sense that there’s a connection between us.

TV REAL: Witnessing some of those stories about the devastation these underworlds can wreak on lives, how do you cope with it?
VAN ZELLER: It’s hard. It’s especially hard because I’m a mother. I was following a woman crossing the border into the United States with five kilos of fentanyl. I’ve spent a big part of my career doing stories about the opioid crisis and talking to mothers who lost their kids. This woman crossing with fentanyl was herself a mother. She said she was just trying to provide for her kid. For me, it was a hard spot to be in. On the one hand, I had gotten to know her and I didn’t want something bad to happen to her. At the same time, she was carrying fentanyl and I knew where it was going to end up and the consequences of that. I have a 10-year-old son. That afternoon I went straight to watch my son play soccer. And there’s this moral battle going on inside of me. It’s complicated. We carry a lot of baggage in these stories, for sure. There’s no way I can come home and forget this has all happened.