The Emmy-nominated documentary series TRAFFICKED WITH MARIANA VAN ZELLER is now in its third season Wednesday nights on National Geographic, with episodes available the following day on Hulu.
In TRAFFICKED, video journalist Van Zeller explores every aspect of the black market, from drugs to fish to human beings. Previous seasons have had episodes about illegal plastic surgery, online romance scams, methamphetamines, stolen cars, and tigers, to name but a few topics.
This season, Van Zeller begins with an episode on the black-market organ trade. Other segments include explorations of the surrogacy trade, drugs, gangs, and ghost guns. “Each one is a different black market,” Van Zeller explains. She says shooting has already commenced on TRAFFICKED Season 4.
Van Zeller, originally from Portugal, says it took her three years to get into Columbia University in New York as a journalism student. She had been there for one month when the 9/11 tragedy occurred. As the only Portuguese journalist of any description in Manhattan at that moment, she wound up doing live coverage for a Portuguese television station.
“I remember going out into the streets of Manhattan after doing my live reporting,” Van Zeller says, “and seeing the first signs of people looking for their loved ones. I remember perfectly well that very moment deciding, ‘Okay, this is the kind of journalism that I want to do,’ where I explore this darker side of our world, and I get to understand what motivates people to do such horrific acts. And so, a year later, I actually moved to Syria, to learn Arabic, and to be close to the center of news, and I did my first reporting on black markets, which at the time was about how jihadis were crossing into Iraq to fight against Americans.”
Sitting down at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, Van Zeller talks about the challenges and rewards of making TRAFFICKED.
ASSIGNMENT X: Which came first for you, working with National Geographic, or the subject matter and then the documentary series of TRAFFICKED?
MARIANA VAN ZELLER: I’ve been fascinated with, and been covering black markets for almost twenty years, so subject matter definitely came first.
AX: Did you find that 9/11 was an opportunity for traffickers, because there was so much chaos that it was easier for them to steal things, and even people?
VAN ZELLER: Yeah, I think whenever there’s an event of that magnitude, there are a lot of resources that are put into preventing that from ever happening again. And when that happens, sometimes those resources are taken away from other important [matters], such as human trafficking.
But I do think that it’s important to understand that human trafficking, sex trafficking, and all these other black markets exist regardless. And they exist – the traffickers, the smugglers, they’re not waiting for a certain event to happen. The majority of times, they are operating right under our noses, and in our own backyards, and we’re not even aware of it.
With TRAFFICKED, we cover all sorts of black markets, so whether we’re talking about gun trafficking or scams or drugs, I think most people don’t realize that these black and gray markets actually make up almost half of the global economy, and yet we know so little about them. When we talk about immigration, or when we talk about cyber piracy, or crypto scams, these are all issues that we see in the headlines, that we know are around us, and that actually have an impact on us, but we don’t exactly know how they operate, and most importantly, who’s in charge, and who’s operating in them.
AX: Whether they are victims or traffickers, how do you find people who are willing to speak with you, and what kinds of conditions do they usually lay out?
VAN ZELLER: The hardest part of my job is to find people actually willing to talk to us, people who are involved in these underworlds. It takes months, sometimes even years. I always say that for every “yes” we get, we get dozens and dozens of “nos.” So, it looks easy, once you see the final product, but it’s actually not. And it takes a lot of time and work for myself and my incredible team.
AX: Are you always the person who’s conducting the interviews?
VAN ZELLER: When we start filming, absolutely, yes. A lot of times, there are pre-meetings. Not everybody says yes on Day One. Usually, many times, they want to meet me first. They want to meet the person who’s going to be asking them questions. And so, there have been many times where I’ve traveled around the world to go meet with people that sometimes don’t show up, or sometimes do show up and, as much as I try, they decide they don’t want to talk to us. And sometimes we get lucky, and our hard work pays off, and people do agree to talk to us.
AX: How many languages do you speak? How often do you need to use a translator?
VAN ZELLER: I lived in Italy, so I speak Italian, I speak Spanish, I speak French, English, and Portuguese. They’ve helped me tremendously. Being able to speak in the native language of the people I’m speaking to is one of the biggest skills I have. It goes a long way in convincing them to talk to me, it goes a long way in understanding the environment and the nature of where they grew up, and again, why they do what they do.
AX: So, do you try to focus on people who speak one of those languages?
VAN ZELLER: Not always. We did a story, for example, this season on fight clubs. And one of the centers of fight clubs is Thailand, so we spent a lot of time in Thailand, interviewing people who are part of these underground fight clubs.
We did a story on MDMA/Ecstasy, because I [received] an email from my son’s school, warning parents about how there had been a teenager in a school close by here in Los Angeles that had died from an overdose of an MDMA pill that was laced with fentanyl. So, we decided we wanted to do a story, because I had covered drugs for so many years, but I had never really investigated the Ecstasy trade. And so, we ended up going to the center of where the best quality and a lot of the MDMA in the world comes from, which is Holland, the Netherlands. So, a lot of my reporting actually takes me to places around the world, where I don’t speak the language. But a lot of it also takes me just across the border to Mexico, where I do speak the language, and that’s helpful.
A lot of the reporting starts, like every other journalist [laughs], online, looking at what’s being written, what’s been the reporting about [a specific topic] in the past. But we do depend heavily, and I think they are the unsung heroes of our profession as journalists, on the fixers, the local producers, who really share their knowledge and their contacts with us. I call them the unsung heroes because not only are they willing to share these contacts and that knowledge with us, but oftentimes, as foreign journalists, we have the privilege of coming back home to the safety of our own homes. And they are the ones that many times have to stay behind, sometimes in very risky situations. Which is why, whenever we have a story that we’ve done in partnership with these local producers, it is important for them to also see it before it airs, to make sure that we are keeping the conditions that have been requested of us by the people we film, whether it’s the mask – we’re hiding the [facial] features they don’t want us to show, or we’re changing the voice the way they want us to change their voice. So, we’re making sure that we’re not revealing the identities of the people we speak to, but also for the safety of our fixers, the people that work with us.
But at the end of the day, I think the reason why people decide to talk to us is because sometimes they’re the best of the best at what they do, so there’s a level of wanting to boast about what they do. Sometimes their families don’t even know that they do it. So, we give them an opportunity with a mask and [an electronically] changed voice to talk to a well-known and recognized and trusted brand like National Geographic.
On the other hand, I think there’s a level of impunity as well in some of the places where we do our reporting, such as Sinaloa in Mexico, for example, where they’ve been able to operate almost freely and openly for decades, so they don’t see a downside to talking to us.
And third, and I think the most important reason, is this very human characteristic that we all have, of wanting to be understood. [The traffickers] know they’re considered the bad guys, the most stereotyped people in our society, but we give them a platform, again, with judgment last and empathy first, to try to understand why they do what they do.
AX: With human trafficking, what is the biggest cause? Is it work slavery, sexual slavery …?
VAN ZELLER: I think labor trafficking is enormous, as is sex trafficking, unfortunately. I’ve done a lot of stories and reporting on sex trafficking. Again, I don’t think most people realize that whenever there is money to be made, and whenever there is a population of people out there that fall prey to [traffickers], there is going to be a market for it.
One of the things that happened with the pandemic, unfortunately, is that whenever there’s an economic downturn, and people lose their jobs, and right now, we’re still seeing that happening, black markets explode. That is happening as well with human and labor trafficking, and sex trafficking. And it’s a very sad situation. But again, that brings us back into the motivations of why a lot of people get involved in these worlds. A lot of times, it’s lack of opportunities.
There’s a lot of different kinds of human trafficking. In TRAFFICKED, we did an episode on pimps for Season 1. We try to look at who are they, what motivates them, how they do what they do, and how they live with what they do.
So, it was really eye-opening, because I had done many stories on sex trafficking before, outside of this series, and obviously interviewed many people who were victims of sex trafficking, and spent time with law enforcement, whose jobs it is to try to prevent this from happening. But it was interesting with TRAFFICKED of having the opportunity to gain access to the pimps and sex traffickers, and try to understand why they do what they do.
AX: How do they justify in their own minds what they’re doing?
VAN ZELLER: Again, that is why I think TRAFFICKED is such an important series, because if we don’t understand the motivations, we’ll never prevent these black markets from existing. One of the interviews that I will never forget was sitting across from a pimp who had several women working for him. And he was open about how violent he was towards the women that worked for him. When I asked him, “But why? Why do you do what you do?” He said, “Look, I grew up in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles. And around me, my family had no opportunities. Around me, the people considered the heroes, a lot of the times, were either the drug dealers or the pimps. Those were the people that everybody in the neighborhood looked up to. And so, whenever I thought about what I wanted to do, how I wanted to never have to struggle again, that for me was an easy solution. I knew I could do it.”
So again, I think it is important, obviously, to never condone what they do, but the kind of reporting that I do is about trying to at least understand, or empathize, even in the hardest conditions. It’s not always easy, and it’s not even always possible, but I think empathizing is a faster way to a solution than judging.
AX: When you do an interview, how many people are actually there from your team?
VAN ZELLER: So, there are three people on the camera team – two camera people and one AC sound, there’s me, a director, and a producer. So, we’re usually six. Plus, the local journalist, if we’re traveling around.
AX: Has any interview subject ever initially said “Yes,” and then seen the team and said, “Wait a minute, there are seven people here, I’m leaving”?
VAN ZELLER: Absolutely. We start by asking one question, and then the person decides they’re not comfortable and they leave, or we again travel all the way around the world, and we wait, and we wait, and we wait, for a meeting that never happens.
AX: Is there anything that’s trafficked that you were interested in covering that you couldn’t find anybody to talk to about it as of yet?
VAN ZELLER: Yes. There are a couple of issues out there that we’ve tried to report on that we haven’t been able to quite yet, but we have a long list. People are surprised by how many black markets there are around us. I mean, you’d be shocked. I have a very, very long list of future episodes that I still want to do about things that are relevant to our daily lives.
AX: Has there been a story that you thought you were going into for one reason, that morphed into something else as you were investigating it?
VAN ZELLER: Yeah, almost every single episode we do. I think one of the most important things for us as journalists is to keep our preconceived ideas at the door [laughs]. And I do think that actually the reason why our world is so fascinating is because there are so many unexpected turns, the unpredictability factor. And we embrace that on TRAFFICKED. We did an episode on illegal fishing last season. And we started looking at it as, we wanted to speak to people who were involved in illegal fishing, but what we actually came to realize is that what is allowed in the legal fishing industry is actually much more damaging to the world than what is illegal. And so that became sort of the big reveal of the episode.
AX: Do you have a favorite episode, or something that you’re most proud of, in terms of either how it turned out, or just the difficulty of getting it made?
VAN ZELLER: Absolutely. I think the episode we did, “Black Market Babies,” it’s called, but it’s actually about the surrogacy industry. I had no idea that Ukraine has become a center for surrogacy for people around the world, so foreign couples, or single people, who want to have babies but are incapable of doing that by themselves, are hiring these Ukrainian women to carry their babies in their wombs.
With the war breaking out, there were several American babies in surrogate wombs who were caught in the middle of the war. And so, we had the enormous privilege, and I think it’s one of the most emotional moments for me of all the seasons we’ve ever shot on TRAFFICKED, of being with a couple from California as they travel to the war zone, to Ukraine, to meet their baby for the first time, and then to take it away back to safety. That was incredible, an incredible moment.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about Season 3 of TRAFFICKED?
VAN ZELLER: I’d like people to know that, again, it’s these issues that we see in the headlines every day, but we know little about them, whether it’s guns or the opiate crisis or the war in Ukraine, cyber piracy, crypto scams. We hear about them, and what we’re able to do with TRAFFICKED is really pull back the curtain and take you into these wild journeys, into these very dark and secret corners of the world.
This interview was conducted during National Geographic’s portion of the Winter 2023 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.
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Article: Exclusive Interview: Mariana Van Zeller on her National Geographic series TRAFFICKED WITH MARIANA VAN ZELLER