There’s a funny story that while she was making Trafficked, National Geographic’s docu-series about the world’s most dangerous black markets and trafficking syndicates, Peabody Award-feted investigative journalist Mariana van Zeller berated — of all people — a sicario (Spanish for ‘hitman’).
In an interview with Indiewire, van Zeller recounted being in a bunker where a Mexican gun-running cartel stored their arsenal. Unbeknownst to her, the gansters watching over her were also very coked-up. When you mix guns with drugs, it’s a recipe for accidents.
Sure enough, a firearm was discharged, narrowly missing the Los Angeles-based, Portuguese-born journo and her cinematographer.
Van Zeller said, “I got really angry with the gunmen and the head of the gunmen that we were interviewing that day and told them this is unacceptable, you have to be accountable for the men you’re in charge of.”
Pretty badass, right? You’ll use the b-word a lot when you watch van Zeller ventures deep into the dark side of humanity and get up close and personal with underworld operatives — from cocaine runners and counterfeit money-makers to flesh peddlers and wildlife smugglers.
In each episode, van Zeller tries to pry answers out of them, hoping to learn what drove them to do what they do in this multi-trillion shadow economy (about 60 per cent of the global economy) — insights that will make elevate our lives and give us experiences that will, hopefully, make us more empathetic.
“We want [the show] to be compelling, we want people to watch,” says van Zeller, who cut her teeth covering the 9/11 attacks in Manhattan and later covered the Syrian mujahidin crossing over to Iraq to fight against the US invasion in 2003.
“I always say in journalism that it’s very important to give people broccoli, so give them information and nutrients; nutritious information that they need, but cover it with cheese so you make sure that they eat it.”
She continues, “One thing working in this world has really given me is perspective. It makes you realise that you can’t and shouldn’t be complaining about the little things. You should seize the moments and try to find little moments of pleasure and happiness wherever you are.”
Speaking to 8days.sg in December via Zoom, van Zeller shares with us a few behind-the-scenes nuggets from making the eight-part docu-series. (She's already started work on Season 2.)
1/ She has someone on the inside helping her.
To gain access to the clandestine characters, van Zeller often reaches out to a network of dependable contacts she nurtured over the years, and oftentimes they are the local journalists. “They are actually the unsung heroes of our production,” van Zeller trumpets. “They’re the ones who share their sources with us and guide us into these worlds.” That’s why she goes to great lengths to conceal the interviewees’ identities and whereabouts. “Because if something were to go wrong, there’s a good chance that they will get mad and go after someone and that someone usually is the local journalist that helped us.”
2/ Not every episode requires her to jump through many hoops.
“I don’t think people realise just how difficult it is to get access to these worlds,” says van Zeller. “For every yes, there’s dozen, if not hundreds, of nos.” There is, however, one story that she didn’t face an uphill battle in telling: ‘Steroids’, which examines the rampant steroid abuse by bodybuilders. Her guide, Anthony Huge, aka Dr Tony Huge, isn’t shy about advocating enhancement drugs. So much so that he didn’t mind being filmed jabbing a bodybuilding contestant (in mid-competition, no less) with a steroid meant for racehorses. “He was willing to open his life,” van Zeller says. “We didn’t have to disguise him — he didn’t care, really.”
3/ She has no idea the Joe Exotic saga would become such a pop culture phenomenon.
In the ‘Tigers’ ep — which deals with wildlife smuggling — van Zeller got to chat with Carole Baskin and Doc Antler, two characters who would later become synonymous with Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. “We had no idea Tiger King was a thing until we saw it,” van Zeller says, with a laugh. Van Zeller doesn’t have fond memories of speaking to Antler who called reporters that alleged him of animal cruelty “Al-Qaeda to the max." “You know when a person right off the bat starts attacking, you realise that there’s something that they’re not willing to share,” says van Zeller. “His stance from the beginning was attacking me, journalists, National Geographic, and my colleagues. So I knew we were onto something that there was definitely something he was trying to hide.” And she was right: In October 2019, Doc Antler was charged with wildlife trafficking and animal cruelty.
4/ She takes her mental health seriously.
On the show, van Zeller is on a constant adrenaline high; when she isn’t conducting high-risk interviews, she’s seen either on the run or looking over her shoulders. How does she decompress after an exciting day? “I’ve made it almost mandatory for my team that at the end of the day, after the shoot, we all meet for beer or dinner,” says van Zeller. “It’s sort of our little therapy session where we all get to talk about what we just witnessed, and you know, we see a lot of heavy things. We’re like a family, so it’s our moment to connect with each other as well.” When she's home from assignments, van Zeller would just spend time as much as possible with her husband, father, and 10-year-old son, Vasco. "I [also] like my glass of wine at the end of the day!" she adds.
Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller airs Fri, National Geographic Channel (Singtel TV Ch 201 & StarHub Ch 411), 10pm.
Photos: National Geographic Channel/Muck Media