Peabody Award-winning journalist Mariana van Zeller has made a career of mixing with some very unsavoury people.
She spent several years tracking the notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman for her 2015 documentary Chasing El Chapo. She uncovered the shocking truth about sexual abuse on Native American reservations for her Livingston Award-winning 2010 docuseries Rape on the Reservation. And her exposé about the US opioid epidemic and the associated pill trafficking industry in The Oxycontin Express landed an Emmy nomination and a Television Academy award alongside its Peabody.
For her latest series, Trafficked, which begins on National Geographic this week, van Zeller has travelled the world investigating some of the most lucrative trafficking operations, and it’s incredible to learn some of the surprising activities the unscrupulous can profit from.
Of course, the usual suspects such as drug smugglers and car thieves are in attendance, but we also learn about the highly organised, multi-million dollar business of romance scams, the illegal market for plastic surgery, and the way that white supremacist ideology is shipped in similar fashion like any other illegal commodity.
I ask her if she’s able to sleep at night in between looking over her shoulder for the latest gang member she’s exposed.
“I've been covering black markets for almost 20 years. It's my entire career as a journalist,” she says. “So I think I have a lot of experience. We have a lot of training, me and my team. There's a lot of security procedures and plans in place, and the majority of the people that we end up talking to, we do so with their permission to be in their territory to sort of have access to their lives.”
It’s a painstaking process that viewers don’t necessarily appreciate in the edited down versions seen on TV, but it’s one that van Zeller says makes her feel safe in her highly risky day job: “It takes months and months, and a lot of heart attacks to get there – I've gotten very used to rejection. I would say for every ‘yes,’ that we get we get dozens, sometimes even hundreds of ‘no’s. But once we do get in, we are there with their permission. And a lot of times, it's actually with the permission of their bosses, the heads of cartels or the heads of criminal organisations. So in a way, there's very much a sense of protection in that sense.”
Drugs gangs and crime syndicates may have been the bread and butter of van Zeller’s eventful career, but for the new show, she admits that it was some of the less obvious forms of criminal activity that gave her the biggest surprises.
“There was several situations that really blew me away, like the Ghanaian romance scammers, just realising what a huge industry this was – there was a rise by 300 per cent during the pandemic, with all these scammers exploiting the global loneliness that we were all feeling,” she says.
“We spoke to American women who spent more than a million, two million [dollars], all their life savings, sold their houses, their businesses, everything. It was really not what I expected at all.”
There was another less obvious form of exploitation that gave van Zeller perhaps her biggest scare of the season, and the episode she says she’s most proud of, and it didn’t even require leaving the US to find.
“I think, to take a darker turn, to me, the scariest episode of the season, and one that at first glance wouldn't fit Trafficked was the white supremacy one,” she says.
“I'm really proud that we did that one, because it is a growing problem around the world. We were able through our investigation to show how these white supremacy networks operate like a trafficking network, and how we should all be very aware and scared.”
It’s not the first time van Zeller has dealt with the export of ideology as a criminal activity. As a rookie reporter in September 2001, she was the only Portuguese journalist in New York when the planes hit the Twin Towers, and unexpectedly found herself covering the events for Portuguese TV.
This led to a fascination with the Middle East, and van Zeller enrolled at Damascus University with the intention of learning Arabic. The Arabic lessons didn’t go so well – van Zeller says she was surprised to land and find that the Damascus of the early 21st century was something of a party town. Thankfully, although the partying put the brakes on van Zeller’s Arabic ambitions, her time in Damascus wasn’t entirely wasted.
“I found a story about the Mujahideen crossing into Iraq to fight against the Americans right at the beginning of the insurgency,” she says. “All over the media in the United States, the stories were about how Saddam Hussein had been defeated and it was a big win for the United States. There was nothing about foreign fighters going into Iraq, but we spent a week there with them, interviewing and writing.”
No one could accuse van Zeller of chasing the easy stories, but she’s been breaking bread with some of the world’s most dangerous criminals for more than 20 years now. I ask the intrepid reporter if she can envisage herself settling down into a nice relaxed beat anytime soon:
“I've been wanting to do this my entire life. I started my career in the Middle East, and I've always wanted to be close to the action. I’m driven by enormous curiosity, particularly about worlds that we know so little about. I don't think I could be happy doing anything else.”
Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller debuts on NatGeo at 11pm on Friday, February 18 with new episodes weekly