”The bad guys are often more like us than we’d like to believe.” Mariana Van Zeller on finding empathy in society's darkest corners

The journalist behind National Geographic's unflinching new documentary series Trafficked talks drugs, guns, pimps – and breaking boundaries in the underworld.

Published 11 Jan 2021, 14:10 GMT, Updated 20 Jan 2021, 20:49 GMT
Mariana Van Zeller inside the walls of Peru's Lurigancho prison, where she interviewed a currency counterfeiter.

Mariana Van Zeller inside the walls of Peru's Lurigancho prison, where she interviewed a currency counterfeiter. 

Photograph by National geographic

THERE is a moment in episode four of Trafficked – unambiguously titled ‘Guns’ – in which Portuguese journalist Mariana Van Zeller walks into a clearing near an unnamed town in the south of Culiacán, Mexico. Around her stand three men wearing masks and holding AR-15 assault rifles, whom Van Zeller identifies on her voiceover as sicarios – hired killers – for the Sinaloa drug cartel.     

One, his voice muffled and his face an eye-slot between a scarf and a baseball cap, is describing in Spanish the moment he first murdered someone: by shooting them twice in the face on their doorstep, while they pleaded for their life. And then, with that universal tone of self-justification, the man says: “we're not bad people... we work and make money.” 

The guns the sicarios hold are what has led Van Zeller here: amongst them military-grade American-made assault rifles, part of the 'iron river' that flows south from the U.S. into Mexico, and provide firepower for the drug wars that claim tens of thousands of lives a year. There is, as Van Zeller points out, only one gun store in Mexico; 70% of the weapons seized by authorities originate in the United States. 

Each episode of Trafficked – which premieres on the National Geographic channel this month – focuses on such illicit commodities: from tigers, to cocaine, phoney currency and the services of prostitutes, amongst others. The show is full of unsettling moments like that with the cartel sicarios: from the murderers-for-hire who greet the camera crew with manners and handshakes; the drug transporter raising funds to study dentistry so he can 'see people smile'; the ‘cook’ who runs a legitimate biochemical business by day, and moonlights manufacturing lethal opioids for an equally lethal cartel.  

Brandishing U.S.-made weapons, in Mexico Van Zeller poses with two sicarios for the Sinaloa drug cartel for the ‘Guns’ episode of Trafficked. According to Van Zeller two of the three sicarios featured have since been killed.

Photograph by National geographic

At the centre of all is Van Zeller herself: diminutive, endearing and affable yet unflinchingly direct – no matter how fast the dangerous waters around her are rising. Often she is sharing a joke, a drink or a laugh with those on camera, as if a nocturnal tour of a drug cartel's gun cache (with its criminal caretaker as her guide) is as workaday as admiring a neighbour's new patio set. Which, of course, is the point: amongst so many lifestyle shows or makeover documentaries, this one covers subjects that are pervasive in modern life. The only difference is the ones in this show are all deeply illegal – and the wrong approach would probably get its presenter killed.

(Related: Inside the disturbing world of the illegal wildlife trade.)

With many of her interviewees, Van Zeller's opening gambit, along with beers and flattery, is what she refers to as her ‘unofficial business card’: images on her phone, posing with various other underworld players. The resulting insight suggests either a journalist with a supreme knack for encouraging candour or, more uncomfortably, criminals that are not all that different to what we might term 'normal' members of society. It's likely both.

Van Zeller talked to National Geographic UK about walking the thin and sometimes blurry line between the two sides of the law.

One striking thing in this show is the access you managed to get: face-to-face time with key players in some of the shadowiest operations imaginable. Why do you think people allowed you to talk to them?

It’s a combination of factors. I think ego plays a role: some of these people are the best at what they do, whether that’s the best at printing fake money, or the best gun runners, or the best drug chemists – and a lot of the time not even their families or friends know what they do, so we give them an opportunity to sort of boast – to show off what they do best.

Impunity plays a role as well: these are some parts of the world where [the criminals] have been able to operate with impunity for so long, they don’t really see a downside to talking to an internationally recognised and trusted name like National Geographic.

Van Zeller examining trafficked weapons in Los Angeles, and getting the lowdown on banknotes from one of Lima's street currency exchange workers in the capital of artisan counterfeiting.  

Photograph by National Geographic

And then I think lastly, and maybe more importantly, these are the most ostracised and stigmatised people in our society. The way I always approach them is that I tell them that I’m not there to judge; I’m there with empathy and I’m there to listen to their stories. And I think people want to be understood. A lot of situations, it’s the lack of opportunities, or whatever situation they grew up in, that led them into their lives. They see this as their chance to share that side of their story.

(Related: Suffering unseen – the hidden cost of wildlife tourism.)

You mention empathy – in what way is that a part of your job?

Empathy is everything. It really is what drives me. And I think that’s the most powerful tool we have with shows like Trafficked – to be able to allow people to put themselves in the shoes of people who at first glance we feel we have nothing in common with. I don’t want people to empathise with the act or the action, but I do want people to at least try and empathise with what got them there. Obviously, what the sicarios are doing in the guns episode is horrific, they are killers – and I have no doubt that if they were ordered to kill me at that moment they would have – but I think more importantly to me is for you to understand why they became who they are. I don’t believe anyone is born wanting to be a sicario. The three guys we spent time with – two have been killed. And they were under 30 years old. So again, this is not a life choice you can make. That’s the part to me that’s important. And that’s where empathy really plays a role: understanding what led a person to this life.

“Empathy goes a long way. I always make it really clear that I’m not there to judge, and that is such an important part of why they open up their world to us. ”

Mariana Van Zeller

This is ultimately the message I want people to take away. At first glance it’s a dangerous show, and sort of about depressing and sad issues that are happening around the world. But something that I’ve found out is that the people that we tend to think of as the bad guys are often more like us than we’d like to accept. These are mothers, fathers, they have goals, aspirations and dreams a lot like us – but because of a lack of opportunity or the situation where they grew up, they have fallen into these black markets. And unless we look at this, raise awareness and truly show the backstory of what led them there and address the root causes, we’re never going to be able to change anything.

Why do you think journalism like this matters?

We need it now more than ever. Partly because of social media, partly because of the political landscape. There is a lack of truth, and a lack of believing in the truth… and I think it’s our jobs [as journalists] to go out there to look for that truth. I think there’s this wrong idea that journalists should be balanced, and give equal time to each side – and I don’t think that’s what journalism is about. Journalism is about seeking the truth. And ultimately with a show like this, that’s what we’re trying to do. 

"I think there’s this wrong idea that journalists should be balanced, and give equal time to each side – and I don’t think that’s what journalism is about.” In Jamaica, Van Zeller interviews 'Viktor', a scamming kingpin surrounded by heavily armed bodyguards. 

Photograph by National Geographic

Which was the hardest of these worlds for you to crack in terms of access?

The ‘Pimps’ episode was really really hard. We contacted over 100 pimps, only a few got back to us and less than a handful sat down with us for an interview. But I would say the hardest moment of the whole season to film was the female mule crossing the border into the U.S. with a car packed with fentanyl. It was that moment – I had spent the day before with her, she was pregnant, she had kids at home – watching her as she is crossing the border with 5kg of the most dangerous drug in America. 

I knew full well, having reported on the opiate crisis in America for so long, the impact that these drugs can have. And so being there and witnessing her being called for a secondary inspection, she’s about to get caught... I was so nervous. On one end, I didn’t want her to get caught because I knew what that would mean for her family; and on the other I kept thinking about what the families, particularly those who have lost kids to the opiate crisis, would be thinking of me. How they would be judging me as a journalist at that moment. It was one of the hardest moments for me of the entire series.

in Mexico, two fentanyl cooks show their process.  

Photograph by National Geographic

On the Thailand-Laos border, Van Zeller holds a bottle of suspected tiger bone wine, prized – with no supporting evidence – for its medicinal qualities. 

Photograph by National Geographic

And which subject made you feel the most desperate?

There was tigers, and the realisation that in the United States there are more tigers in captivity than there are in the entire world in the wild. We tend to point the finger at Asia as as the bad guys when it comes to wildlife trafficking, but what we’re doing in the United States is very similar to what’s happening in Asia. They are butchering them, and they are using them for products: and here in the US we are breeding them so we can take selfies and we can pet baby tigers. There is a commodification of the tiger, these beautiful predators who should be out in the wild. It really depressed me that we’re in the 21st century and that still hasn’t clicked in a lot of people’s heads.

(Read: Tiger king star 'Doc' Antle charged with wildlife trafficking.)

And on the other hand, there was the pimps episode. As I say, the way I always approach people is with empathy – but there was one particular story with [a pimp who called himself] Jacknife – he told us how one of ‘his’ women fled and he was able to find her, and he said he cut her feet with a razorblade. It was really hard for me to not stand up and leave. But I stayed and I listened to his story. Because until you understand where he grew up and what led him to that life, you’re only going to know a little part of the problem, not the full scale of it.

Mariana Van Zeller in Thailand. "No matter how far into the fringes of our society that we travel we can still find people who are redeemable and relatable. And that has given me a lot of new found hope for the world." 

Photograph by National Geographic

How has it changed your view of the world? 

I’m an optimistic person. I think that people have this idea that, having travelled for two years back to back in these quite depressing worlds, that I’d be less hopeful… but I think the opposite has happened. I think that no matter how far into the fringes of our society that we travel we can still find people who are redeemable and relatable. And that has given me a lot of new found hope for the world.

(Related: The illegal market for tarantulas is a hairy business.)

Has your gender influenced your work?

Absolutely. Being a woman has been incredibly beneficial for a number of reasons. One, I think women are seen as less threatening. Some of these illicit labs, I have been the only women to ever set foot in them – and I think there’s maybe a novelty factor that is disarming for them, and they are more inclined to sit down and talk to me. I also think that women tend to look at the world with more empathy and that really goes a long way: I always make it really clear to them that I’m not there to judge, and that is such an important part of why they open up their world to us.

Trafficked with Mariana Van Zeller: Watch the Trailer
Enter the underworld with National Geographic in a new series exploring some of the world's most infamous black markets. Begins Monday 18th January on the National Geographic Channel.

Trafficked with Mariana Van Zeller starts on the National Geographic channel from 18th January. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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