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Exclusive interview with Mariana van Zeller from Trafficked on National Geographic Channel

Mariana van Zeller
Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller is an intimate look at the underworld economy. Pic credit: NGC

National Geographic Channel debuts an eight-part series tonight called Trafficked that features Peabody and duPont Award-winning journalist Mariana van Zeller. The global underworld is touched on in segments that cover everything from fentanyl to scams, pimps to tigers, and more.

Mariana van Zeller is typical of the elite group of investigative reporters who work with National Geographic’s award-winning producers and have trademark insider access. She takes viewers on a hair raising journey inside the most dangerous black markets on the planet.

Each investigation is an embed inside the complex inner workings of a particular smuggling or trafficking network. While she sits and interviews many players in their respective worlds, her connecting of stories and the reasons why they are in this realm makes the viewer understand how close we all are, and complicit in many ways of each other’s existence.

People have to eat, and when opportunities are scant, the bold and the brave cross the line for survival. Is this a good thing? The better question may be to ask yourself what would you do if you were in these clandestine shoes.

Trafficked offers viewers an intimate peek behind the criminal curtain where vast underground economies — from tiger traffickers and international scammers to counterfeiters, gunrunners, and fentanyl suppliers — thrive.

The interviews arranged include law enforcement personnel, ex-cons, fellow journalists, and locals caught in the crossfire, all designed to illuminate the trafficking networks that contribute to the lucrative global shadow economy.

“I couldn’t be more excited to share Trafficked with viewers around the world,” said Mariana van Zeller in a press statement to Monsters & Critics, who has spent the better part of the last 15 years reporting on the global underworld.

“People don’t realize that black markets are all around us, hidden in plain sight. And what fascinates me most is how normal, law-abiding people — people like you and me — get pulled into these criminal worlds.”

The topics Mariana will cover

Scams – Mariana goes from Montego Bay to Tel Aviv where the art of defrauding your granny is high art. The biggest phone, lottery, and financial scammers in the world exist there and she learns why Americans are the perfect targets.

Fentanyl – Fentanyl has upped the ante for overdoses in the USA. This end-of-life drug meant for cancer and terminally ill folks is now made in filthy labs all over North America and supplied by Chinese chemicals. But she learns the Mexicans are cutting the Chinese out of that moneymaker too.

Tigers – Mariana shows why Americans are supporting this cruel business with the need for experimental selfie moments for bragging rights.

Steroids – In the age of social media, the demand for illegal steroids has made a billion-dollar black market in body-enhancing drugs.

Money runners – Mariana journeys deep inside the Peruvian underworld and Lima crime families to meet the gangster craftsmen who make and sell the world’s finest counterfeit U.S. dollars.

Pimps – In an eye-opening journey, the ugly business of illicit sex is fueled by pimps who prey upon insecure women untethered to strong families, and use every mean necessary to intimidate them.

Cocaine – Despite the decades-long U.S. War on Drugs, cocaine production is at an all-time high, and Mariana meets some of the makers, smugglers, drivers, and teenage backpackers who bring Americans their favorite snortable.

Exclusive interview with Mariana van Zeller

Monsters & Critics spoke to Mariana van Zeller yesterday and learned that the series is one big mirror that reflects our own society’s shortfalls and weaknesses:

Monsters & Critics: You are in that elite group of really ballsy journalists that understand the risks, but see the bigger picture and the bigger story. And you really put your life on the line. Tell me about this new series and some really dangerous scenarios that you found yourself in.

Mariana van Zeller: You know, I’ve been reporting on these underworlds and black markets, almost all my career for 15 years. I think one thing people aren’t aware is there’s so much out there so much information about the formal economy and yet the informal economy actually makes up for almost half of the global economy, what we call the gray and black markets.

And, there’s very little information and very little access is given usually. Very little light about what’s happening in these worlds. I truly believe that there’s sort of so much that we can learn and can take away from entering these worlds and figuring out how they operate and how they’re organized and how they work.

So part of the reason why I wanted to do this show was that, obviously, there’s some danger involved in doing a, we’re dealing with traffickers and smugglers and criminal organizations.

I hope that is not the takeaway that people get from watching the show. I truly hope that one of my big goals for this show from the start was to get people, to be able to connect with individuals that are completely different from us, who sometimes might live in far away, places might seem like they have nothing. We have nothing in common with them.

Yet if you sit down and listen to their stories, you realize that there is a lot more that connects us and doesn’t, and because of a lack of opportunities or the series of circumstances in which they turn to the outlaw life. At the same time as it’s exhilarating and sort of frightening series on many levels, I hope that it’s also one that sort of can bring you some sort of inspiration and joy and do look at our world, more of the beautiful place that we still have a lot to learn from.

M&C: Specifically, let’s talk about the pimp episode. I hear what you’re saying. I heard their stories and there was no opportunity for them, but at the same time, I think that that’s an easy fallback for people to say, ‘there’s no opportunities for me here. So I see people living a flashy lifestyle, and I want that.’ There’s no impulse control. They prey on women mercilessly. There’s no discipline within themselves to take their natural talents and actually maybe try and do something legit. That bothered me,

Mariana van Zeller: That bothered me too. And that’s actually always the example that I give us some interviews that I had a really hard time empathizing with people. And yes, if you listen to the whole interview with one of the subjects that we spend time with, one of the pimps, his name was JackKnife. And, I felt very uncomfortable and I sort of wanted to get out of the room as soon as possible.

When he told us how he had cut the feet of a woman with a razor, and that was terrifying. And, obviously none of this I condone. And obviously, by what I said before, it doesn’t mean that I don’t realize…I know there are bad people out there. I’ve seen them doing very bad things, too.

Yet, if you do listen to his story, his wasn’t about money. His story was actually that he was raised in a neighborhood where the people that were considered sort of the heroes in his neighborhood — as he was explaining to us were the people with money — but also the people that were respected, they were pimps.

And, he never had anyone telling him that that was not the right thing to do. He doesn’t see it like that, he doesn’t feel like the rest of the world. he was never educated in that way. So it’s easy for us to judge. I think it’s much harder for us to empathize.

It was certainly very hard for me to empathize with him. but yet I do think it’s important to listen to these stories because without knowing what the root cause of these problems and why people turns to a life of crime and become outlaws, and in his case, a pimp… I don’t think we are able to change much in the world.

M&C: And with the fentanyl episode, this was kind of a big picture question, but these kinds of end of life drugs and the fact that Americans are consuming them in such large amounts, it scares me for the future of this country more than the red state- blue state chatter. It’s like a cry of despair, people are just giving up. What do you think?

Mariana van Zeller: Yes, Absolutely. There are more Americans dying from drug overdoses, particularly opioid overdoses than car accidents and gun accidents. And that’s crazy. I’ve been following the opioid crisis and reporting on the opioid crisis since 2008.

One of the first documentaries I did was called Oxycontin Express. And I do think that we tend to sort of point the finger outside of America, usually at Mexico as the ones who are sort of the guilty ones for bringing in the drugs. But with opiates in particular, we have to understand and learn and know is that it is the worst drug epidemic in American history.

And it’s an epidemic and drug crisis that was made right here in America by American pharmaceuticals. A lot of it starts with doctors prescribing. It was the same exact thing. I mean, we saw it happening with Oxycontin several years ago, and then we saw it happening again with a much more dangerous and deadly drug like fentanyl, which started also as a pharmaceutical drug given to terminally ill cancer patients essentially. It found a street life.

When Mexican cartels and Chinese labs found out that they could make a lot of money for making these drugs, what they’re shipping more fentanyl to the West than ever before.

M&C: What do you think the strategy is after reporting on it and thinking about it the way you have and knowing the subject what’s the solution, do you think with a drug is strong it’s fentanyl?

Mariana van Zeller: It’s a combination of factors. I do know, however, one thing that isn’t working and that is that the war on drugs is just not working. The billions of dollars that the United States has poured into this effort every year… this the war on drugs. Not working.

I come from Portugal, and it was the first country to decriminalize [all drug usage]. And I remember a lot of my fellow countrymen at the time were very worried and concerned and skeptical that this would work.

And yet it has been a resounding success, the rate incarceration rates have gone down, and the rates of AIDS, and the government is — instead of saying essentially for people to go to prison — they’re paying for them to go to rehab and it costs much less.

So I think we can take examples like Portugal and others around the world as examples of what we can do to try and find a solution, because what we are doing right now certainly is not working.

M&C: Your other episode covered cocaine. Is there anything interesting or new in the flow of cocaine?

Mariana van Zeller: We basically were trying to follow the pipeline of cocaine, the routes that cocaine takes from the Vraem Valley in Peru, where a lot of the cooking that’s consumed in the West comes from, all the way through Columbia and enter the United States.

And this is in our case, we went to Miami … and see how it was being used here. I think one thing that really sort of stuck with me from that episode, it was actually one of the most sort of impactful moments in the whole series, I believe was after filming in a drug lab and illicit drug labs in the upper Amazon jungle in Peru, in the Vraem Valley, we spent time with a group of mochileros (backpackers) who are essentially smuggling the cocaine out of this area into another area where that then transported out of the country.

They walk with the huge backpacks filled with kilos and kilos of cocaine, this back-breaking work. They walked for days and days on end. They slept out in the open. They’re constantly being assaulted. They seen their best friends killed in front of them by rival groups.

These are teenagers in a lot of cases, and we spent the night around the fire just before they were getting ready to go out on one of these incredibly dangerous journeys. I started asking around, ‘why do you do this? This is so dangerous, so difficult. why?’ And one of them says, look, I grew up in a family that’s very poor. Uh, there were no opportunities out there for us.

And he said, ‘I realized very early on that I wanted, my dream was to go to college. I really want to be educated and sort of try to figure out a way that I could get out of this poverty. My family couldn’t afford for college. And there was no job opportunities whatsoever around us.’

The whole economy in this area of Peru is sustained by the cocoa leaf plantation, and by illicit labs and by cocaine trafficking. And you realized the only way that he could save money was by doing this incredibly dangerous sport.

I asked him, ‘why do you want to go to college so much?’

And he said, ‘I really want to be a dentist.’

[I asked] ‘Why a dentist?’

‘Well, [he said] because I want to make people smile.’

These kinds of stories that if you cannot connect with people that you think are so different from you, living in such far away places doing things that you cannot comprehend, you do not have to condone [their actions], but you can certainly understand and empathize [with them].

M&C: I think there’s been generations of America that have been quite sheltered from extreme poverty. I think that you see that up close and personal, and that a lot of the world is extremely poor and people in this country don’t understand what extremely poor means. They really don’t. There’s so many levels of poverty and you really see it up close.

Mariana van Zeller: Absolutely right. Traveling. It’s the biggest education educational tool out there, and I think it should be mandatory for all people to travel and see the world because you gain so much a different perspective on life.

M&C: One episode centers on scams. They are crafty in their solicitations now…

Mariana van Zeller: Yes I’ve traveled to Nigeria before, and I’ve heard a lot about sort of Nigerian scams. But I had no idea that one of the biggest centers of scamming these days is Jamaica.

So when I found that out, I realized, Oh, this is a new sort of phenomenon. I thought, it’s fascinating… why Jamaica? And it’s piques my curiosity. And we arrived in Jamaica and ended up spending time with a handful of scammers. And it was again, still surprising to hear the reasons why they do what they do. It’s an industry actually that brings in tens of millions of dollars.

Then we went and after Jamaica, we went to Israel and we saw financial accounting scams there, which brings in billions of dollars.

But my time in Jamaica I spent speaking to people and realized why they decide to scam Americans. A lot of them actually talked about reparations. this idea that they had been exploited exploited for so long, by colonial powers. And this was sort of payback.

Many of the Jamaicans that I spoke to, [they felt] this was their payback. This was their opportunity to give back the money that they, that was there. and the national scamming Anthem in Jamaica is by an artist called Vybz Kartel. And it’s called Reparations and it talks about scamming and reparations.

But then again, like listening to some stories. Tweety, who was a woman we interviewed there, [she was] a scammer, who told us a story about, she works at the word of luxury resort every day.

She sees American spending more in a day that you can make any year. She’s the only breadwinner in her family because nobody else was able to get a job. She lives with her mother, her sister and her kids. One day she comes home and realizes her grandfather, who she’s very close with is very, very sick and needs a surgery, but the surgery is costly and she can’t afford it.

Her salary isn’t going to get enough money. She realizes the only way she can get money to save her grandfather is by scamming people and as horrific of a crime that it is, because we’re speaking about old Americans, very gullible America, a lot of them, very lonely Americans. I think that I heard it again and again is how the best victims are those that are lonely because they just want to talk.

So it’s easy to scam them. And it was really hard for me to listen to this, but at the same time, she said, I realized either I scam and start doing this and start making money to save my grandfather, or he will die.

So at that moment, and she grew up in a very religious family, and she said [to me] that I am God in my family. This is how she put it. I am God in my family and my responsibility to save this man that I love so much. Again, I do not condone what she’s doing, her actions, certainly they’re not condoned, but I understand.

I went to Israel and so another whole different kind of scamming, and I didn’t feel a lot of empathy there for them, because I think that is driven much more from greed than it is from lack of opportunity. So… I’m a little bleeding heart…

M&C: Tell me About the tigers episode please

Mariana van Zeller: It’s a billion-dollar industry and we knew we wanted to do something on wildlife trafficking. So we started researching, and then I read something in an article about how they’re more captive tigers in the United States than there are in the wild entire world. And that totally shocked me.

That’s sort of when we decided, okay, this is really worth looking into. We went on a journey collecting data and started in Asia, where we looked at wildlife poachers. We went to the golden triangle, between Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand and spent time there in an area that is known for a lot of wildlife trafficking and for poachers and all that.

Then we spent time also in one of the last reserves in Thailand, where there are still wild tigers alive and where the Rangers, with the help of international organizations are trying very hard to keep poachers away and to keep the animals alive.

We saw how tigers would be used as a commodity in Asia for tiger wine, which is a luxury product, and their pelts and all this other stuff. Then we came to the United States and saw how tigers were being used in roadside zoos, in safari parks, where people are breeding tigers. In our case, we actually visited Doc Antle’s Safari park, which Doc Antle was featured in.

M&C: He’s in hot water right now. Your show trafficked really holds a huge truthful mirror for America, for us to look into and to see where the problems are, why they exist, and maybe do some internal housecleaning.

Mariana van Zeller: Yes, that is right. I don’t think he’s in prison yet. But he was charged. We had an opportunity to go to his Myrtle beach Safari and see these little cubs that he breeds go from hand-to-hand and lap to lap from all these Americans. They are coming from all over the country to visit, paying absurd amount of money, over $500 a ticket to get into this farm.

And again, I saw turning a tiger into a commodity. I think as Americans, we tend to… again, it’s this idea that we tend to look outside and point the finger in this case at Asia, as they are the ones doing this to tigers.

But yet, we lose all our moral high ground when we’re doing something where we’re commodifying the tigers equally here for the pleasure of taking a selfie and to be able to touch a tiger.

Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller premieres Wednesday, December 2 at 9/8c with a two-episode premiere on National Geographic Channel.

April is an accredited entertainment writer, interviewer and television critic. She is a current member of the Television Critics Association (TCA), Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association (GALECA), Alliance of Women Film Journalists, Inc. (AWFJ), and Critics Choice Association (CCA). April has worked for Monsters and Critics since 2004 and has also contributed to various other industry and entertainment websites.

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