INTERVIEW Mariana van Zeller, Illegal – a new season of the most captivating black market documentary on the planet

A new season of the investigative documentary series, Illegal (Trafficked) with Mariana van Zeller, begins at National Geographic on February 25, at 22:00. For those who don’t know, journalist Mariana van Zeller, winner of the Peabody and duPont awards, reveals how the most dangerous black markets on the planet work.

Illegal with Mariana van Zeller offers viewers an adventure in rare places to find out what lies behind the criminal curtain. Mariana spends time with important players in several underground economies – from drug dealers, criminal motorcyclists and fentanyl suppliers.

Mariana explores another topic in each episode, confronts the most important members of the illegal networks, and learns how the black market works and what the internal mechanisms of the trillion-dollar global underground economy are.

Among the topics in the newest season of Trafficked, the second, more precisely, are: romantic scams, methamphetamine trafficking, illegal marijuana, stolen cars or criminal motorcycle clubs.

Other episodes of the first season included the black market for marijuana, methamphetamine, plastic surgery, weapons and even steroids.

Among the filming for the newest season that will begin at National Geographic on February 25, we managed to get an interview with her. He told us about the risks of filming and how he manages to gain access to the black markets.

Crew films Mariana van Zeller as she conducts an interview. (Credit: National Geographic)

I think you’ve heard this question often, but I can’t help but ask you: Aren’t you afraid? What do you think was the most dangerous moment of the filming? How do you take precautions?

I always say that in a battle between fear and curiosity, for me, curiosity always wins. Sometimes it’s not a good thing, but I’ve always been a very curious person. I’m lucky I have such a beautiful job. For me, journalism is a job where I combine the useful with the pleasant. I make money out of my own curiosity.

When it comes to the precautions we take when filming, we always try to minimize the risks that may arise. Obviously, we are in danger, we are exposing ourselves to dangerous situations, in different corners of the world. But if we didn’t do that, the story that viewers wouldn’t see would come out. What they don’t see is all the effort we put into capturing the information and presenting it to the public.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for you in filming Trafficked?

The biggest challenge for me and my team is to have access to certain people. Trafficked is all about black markets and how they work. It is difficult to access these networks of traffickers around the world. We must be surprised at how they act from within. We spent months or even years, sometimes, to get in touch and to have the consent to film: we knocked on doors, we rang a lot of phone calls, from source to source. At the end of the day, it’s just a matter of consistency and ambition. These are the main qualities of a good journalist.

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How do you build trust in these people and gain access to their world? Why do you think these people take the risks to expose themselves, even though their identities are hidden?

As I said, this is the hardest part of our job. Let’s get access to certain sources that will provide us with details inside. People agreed to talk to us for various reasons. First of all, it’s about their ego – they say they’re the best at what they do. Many times, not even their families know what they are doing. We give them the opportunity to express themselves, even from behind a mask.

They also want to feel understood, a normal human characteristic. They want to reveal their stories, the reasons why they do that. They trust me because I approach them with empathy, I tell them that I don’t want to judge them, but I really want to listen to their stories, that I’m curious.

Mariana van Zeller (L) talking with a masked subject. (Credit: National Geographic)

Your show is worthy of a real FBI investigation. What was the most dangerous moment during the filming?

We had many risky moments, but one of the most dangerous situations was in an episode in which we showed how women are involved in the cocaine industry. We spent weeks gaining access to a source on a Colombian cartel. She was the leader of that cartel. Eventually, we gained access, and during the interview with Sonia, her bodyguards panicked, took her, and took her to a safe place. They shouted at us to leave immediately, because we had nothing to look for in their territory. So we hurried to our cars and heard gunshots behind us. We later learned that there was a cartel conflict – the Clan del Golfo, one of the largest cartels in Colombia, had attacked them.

So I was extremely close to a tragedy. Fortunately, no one on our team was injured, and the next day we returned to continue the interview.

Do you think that the need for survival of these people working on the black market is more important than moral integrity?

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That’s an interesting question. For example, when I filmed the romance scamming episode, one of the crooks confessed that it is easier for him to go to bed with a full conscience than with an empty stomach. Many of the crooks, traffickers, smugglers I have been filming for 20 years have been committing these illegalities due to lack of opportunities, due to social inequality. I don’t think anyone was born wanting to be a criminal, a thief, a murderer. These are the conditions of a lack of chance, which leads people to a fraudulent life.

What I almost always hear from them is that these people have families, children to feed, dreams and aspirations just like all of us. It’s just about the opportunities that life offers you and how you choose to survive.

How do you think people should be protected from being cheated on the internet?

It is very important to do your homework before doing anything on the internet. I have met many victims of romance scamming and I was very surprised to see that they are successful, intelligent people who have good jobs or their own business. However, they were vulnerable at some point in the face of these internet scammers. Many times, one reason for their vulnerability was loneliness, which sentimental scammers took advantage of.

This type of virtual scam exploded during the pandemic, when people were more alone, isolated, and scammers took advantage of these things. After all, I think we can all be victims if we are not careful. We need to keep our eyes wide open and inform ourselves before sending money to strangers.

Mariana van Zeller observes as group packages cocaine. (Credit: National Geographic)

Do you have a favorite episode of Trafficked?

This is a very difficult question. It’s like asking me to tell you who my favorite child is. I think I’ll tell you about an episode that I think was the scariest. The episode with white supremacy. It was amazing to find out the stories about these groups of people and how international networks are interconnected. It was pretty scary to find out from below.

Instead of putting drugs in people’s bodies or weapons in their hands, they implant ideological thoughts in people’s brains, which I think is very dangerous, if not more dangerous than other black markets. They are inspired by each other, learn skills from each other and even train together for a racial war. These groups are very organized and motivated, but also extremely dangerous.

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