Mariana van Zeller explores a Hmong village near Tak, Thailand. Picture: National Geographic/Muck Media
Mariana van Zeller explores a Hmong village near Tak, Thailand. Picture: National Geographic/Muck Media

‘Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller’ shines spotlight on most dangerous black markets in the world

By Debashine Thangevelo Time of article published Jan 15, 2021

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Mariana van Zeller is probably one of a select few journalists with unprecedented access to some of the most dark and dangerous underworlds.

During her well-established career, the Peabody Award-winning journalist has produced some stellar and gripping content with “Vanguard, Narco Bling”, “Obama's Army”, “El Chapo: CEO of Crime” and “Pimp City: A Journey To The Center of the Sex Slave Trade”.

She returns with a new docu-series, “Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller”.

In this eight-part offering, she takes viewers on an eye-opening journey of the most dangerous black markets in the world.

I praised her for having the calmness of a Buddha despite being in such precarious environments for this series.

She offered: “I have been working in these sorts of underworlds for over 15 years. But I also think I’m a very optimistic person. I always see the best. I always try to look and think of the best outcomes for situations and also for people.

“I think actually being calm and not showing people that you are nervous even if you are is important.

The moment you show people that you trust them and you respect them, is the moment they will start trusting and respecting you back.

And it's the best way to stay safe in a way as well, because in many of these situations your safety ends up being at the hands of these people.

It’s important that they know exactly why you are there.

And I make my message very clear that I’m there to listen to them, that I’m there with empathy and no judgement.”

This approach, combined with her assurance of complete anonymity, not only secured her access to this criminal world – she found herself privy to information on counterfeiting operations, international scams, cocaine and how it is smuggled out of Peru, the booming steroid and fentanyl industries, a lucrative tiger-smuggling operation, as well as the world of pimps and an understanding of the illicit sex industry in America.

Mariana van Zeller speaking with two mochileros in Turbo, Colombia.

Van Zeller explained: “The more I started reporting on these underworlds, the more I realised there’s so much information out there about the formal economy.

“There’s magazines, TV stations and newspapers devoted to the formal economy. But there isn’t a lot about the informal economy.

These black and grey markets that actually make up for half of the global economy.

“And they actually have a tremendous impact on our daily lives, and I saw this as a tremendous opportunity to sort of shine a light into these worlds and understand how these organisations and black markets operate, and see what we can learn from them.”

She gave special mention to the local journalists.

“They are the sort of unsung heroes in the kind of journalism that we do, they share their sources and are sort of our guides into these worlds.

“Without them, we wouldn’t be able to do our jobs,” she said.

As for how she is able to get interviews with some of the leading figures in this world, she offered: “I think some of the reasons why people ultimately say yes is partly egos.

“Some of them are the best at what they do. We give them the opportunity to sort of boast of what they are passionate about, in a way. We do that by protecting their identities.

“Secondly, I think impunity plays into it. Some of these people have been doing these illegal activities for years and have never been caught.

“Thirdly, it is important for them to tell their stories.

“To show the world that because of circumstances or lack of opportunities, they fell into these lives, but that they are human beings just like us.”

She concluded: “The world isn’t black and white, there is a lot of grey. Even the people that we think we have nothing in common with, we can find common ground.

“They are human beings motivated by very much the same things that we are. They are mothers and fathers who love their kids and have goals and aspirations in life.

“We give a chance for people around the world to connect with some of the most stigmatised, stereotyped and shunned people in our society.”

“Trafficked with Mariana Van Zeller” premiers on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) on Thursday, January 21 at 9pm.

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