The Ms. Q&A: Mariana van Zeller on Being a Woman Journalist Covering the Black Market and Shadow Economy

Journalist Mariana van Zeller’s eight-part series on National Geographic, Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller, pulls back the curtain to show viewers the people operating within black markets are a lot more like us than we realize.

The Ms. Q&A: Mariana van Zeller on Being a Woman Journalist Covering the Black Market and Shadow Economy
van Zeller on location in Israel in 2019. (@marianavz / Instagram)

Award-winning journalist Mariana van Zeller is bringing viewers inside the most dangerous black markets on the planet in a new eight-part series, Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller, available on National Geographic.

From tiger traffickers and international scammers to counterfeiters, gunrunners and fentanyl suppliers, van Zeller attempts to provide a 360-degree view of these poorly understood trafficking networks that contribute to the world’s multi-trillion-dollar shadow economy. 

Yet, van Zeller’s purpose isn’t to vilify the people working in these black markets—but to pull back the curtain and show viewers that the people operating these trafficking rings are often a lot more like us than we realize.

Although the series was filmed before the coronavirus pandemic, van Zeller believes the series has taken on even more importance—since during an economic downturn, people will often turn to black markets make money to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. The series airs every Wednesday through Jan. 13.

Ms. reporter Lisa Rabasca Roepe sat down with van Zeller to discuss what drives people to work in the black market, as well as what it’s like to be a female journalist covering the inner workings of the shadow economy and its players.

Lisa Rabasca Roepe: What have you learned about the complexity and the moral dilemma of illegal acts as a means of survival and humanity while you were working on this series?

Mariana van Zeller: I’ve been covering these underworlds and black markets for over 15 years. Early on, I realized even though we consider [them] outlaws and criminals, and sometimes even enemies, there are a lot of connections that we can still make. There’s humanity in everyone. I think one of the biggest goals I had for this series was to show that.

People think that a series about black markets around the world is going to be depressing and sad, and portray the world as a very dangerous place, but I’m hoping that the takeaway viewers will get is that the world is incredibly complex, and there are definitely bad things and bad people out there, but that it’s also made up of human beings who are just like us, and that there’s connections that we can make and things that we can learn from people that we, at first glance, think have nothing in common with us. In the vast majority of cases, people want to be outlaws and criminals for lack of opportunity. [Because of] the circumstances in which they grew up in, they turn to a life of crime.

In the vast majority of cases, people want to be outlaws and criminals for lack of opportunity.

Roepe: Was that part of your goal to help people to understand each other better?

van Zeller: Absolutely. Our country and our world are more divided than ever. I think we have more of a tendency to demonize the other, and I think there’s a lot of judgment out there, and one of the biggest, and the most important things for me, in my approach to journalism and the message that I want to come across for our viewers is to approach life with empathy. Only with empathy will you be able to understand, and only by understanding and learning will you be able to address the root causes of why black markets exist all around the world.

Roepe: What do you think the average American doesn’t understand about these black markets and how people get pulled into these criminal worlds?

van Zeller: I think they don’t realize just how widespread these black markets are. They’re all around us.

I filmed a few of the scenes just a few miles from my home in Los Angeles. I filmed a gun trafficking scene—a car being loaded with AK-47 and AR-15s—just 10 minutes from my house, next to a freeway at 10 p.m., on a regular weeknight, and that was surprising and shocking to me.

Also, just how out in the open these black markets operate. I think we tend to think that they’re happening in very far away places hidden in secretive underground locations—but in fact what we saw was again and again that these operations and these illegal and criminal activities are happening out in plain sight, and that is actually a tool that they use to meld with the rest of the people around them.

In Mexico, when we were doing the fentanyl episode, one of the biggest ports for fentanyl trafficking was in one of the biggest tourist towns in Sinaloa. It was happening using tourist trucks and tourist speedboats and tourist operators, so again, all happening in plain sight. I think that’s one of the things that most Americans don’t know.

I don’t think anyone is born and decides they want to be a criminal. I think that it’s important for us to realize what leads a person to become what they are, even in situations where people are committing horrific crimes, such as sex traffickers and pimps. One of the episodes was about that, and in that case, it was super hard for me to empathize and to sit down and listen to a pimp talk about he brutalized the women that worked for him—but it’s also my job and the only way that we can learn and prevent this from happening.

If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.

Roepe: You interviewed people who we don’t encounter in our everyday life. I wondered how did you developed their trust and gained access to their world?

van Zeller: It’s by far the most challenging part of my job and my team’s job for sure. None of this is done by all me. I have an incredibly persistent and hardworking team. I would say that for every yes that we get we get dozens and dozens of no’s.

For the pimp story, for example, the producer Laura Koontz, reached out to over 100 pimps on social media, on websites, and of those only under 20 agreed to … or replied back, and of those only … less than a handful agreed to sit down with us and talk. What’s not shown is the work that is done behind the scenes to try and get this access.

The reason why they talk to us is a combination of factors. The first one is ego: These are people that are very good at what they do, they’ve developed their craft, they’re very passionate about what they do, and sometimes not even their families know what they do, and we give them an opportunity to talk about what they know and we give them an opportunity to do so without disclosing their identity.

Secondly, I would say that it’s a sense of impunity. [Many have] spoken to us from places where there’s general impunity and they can go about their lives and their business without any trouble. So, by talking to an internationally recognized brand name like National Geographic, they feel they don’t really have much to lose.

I asked every single person I interviewed why have you agreed to talk to me, and one of the biggest reasons is because they know that they are the most shunned and stereotyped people in our society, and they want to tell their stories and they want to be able to show people that they’re not bad.

Roepe: It looked like you were in some really precarious situations. Sometimes when I was watching I was a little scared for you.

Did you ever feel like you were in danger? How did you deal with those moments of uncertainty? Specifically, I remember when the guy asked you for your phone and then you got into his car with him.

van Zeller: Actually leaving my phone behind has happened in a few situations where that’s the only way that they feel safe and protected.

I would say there was definitely moments where I was scared, and there were moments where we were all uncomfortable, but there’s a lot of preparation that goes in planning, that goes before any of these things happen, and I think it’s just a matter of staying calm.

I think the most important thing is, if you show that you trust them and if you respect them they will trust and respect you back. If you show that you’re nervous, and you show up with security behind you, and if you’re suspicious of them and what they might do, then they’ll be suspicious of you, too.

The hurdle that we always have to pass when gaining access into these worlds is suspicion that we’re law enforcement. There are lots of meetings that happen for them to verify and trust that we’re in fact journalists. Once we pass that hurdle, and once I tell them I’m here to listen to your story and I come without judgment, I think then these worlds have opened to us and people have been willing to talk to us in a way that even I wasn’t expecting.

The Ms. Q&A: Mariana van Zeller on Being a Woman Journalist Covering the Black Market and Shadow Economy
van Zeller on location in Kyiv, Ukraine. (@marianavz / Instagram)

Roepe: How do you feel you were perceived by your sources? Do you think there are some advantages to being a female journalist? Do you think your sources may have underestimated you?

van Zeller: Yes. Absolutely. 100 percent. I think we’re seen, as women, as less threatening, so I think there’s a tendency to allow us more access because of it, and there’s also a sense that as women our approach, in general, is more of empathy, and I think that goes a long way, especially when dealing with these guys that have been leaders of cartels and these black market worlds that are many times sort of macho men. A lot of places that we went to I was the first woman to ever go into. I think that disarmed them in many ways, and it’s been, so far, incredibly helpful.

Roepe: What do you think are some of the unique challenges that women journalists face? Are there also some challenges that perhaps your male colleagues don’t have to deal with?

van Zeller: I haven’t really encountered many disadvantages in the field as a reporter, I have to say. I mean, obviously, like all of us women in every industry have found disadvantages in our industries. You know, lack of equal opportunity in many cases.

In my career as a journalist, there have been situations where obviously that’s happened, but in the field, as a reporter, I can’t say that I’ve actually experienced any disadvantages per se. There have been places that I haven’t been allowed in.

Once I was reporting about the Niger Delta conflict and we were spending time with this rebel group there, and it was myself and my husband. It was back when it was just me and my husband traveling the world and doing short stories for Current TV, and we went to the base of these rebels. My husband was allowed in and I wasn’t.

I’ve done stories in Chania, for example, also with my husband. I was speaking to officials to try to get permission to go somewhere and they just refused to speak to me even though I was the only one who spoke French. They would only allow my husband to talk even though he doesn’t speak French. There have been some moments where I’ve been infuriated and angry, but in general, I have seen more advantages than disadvantages.

A strange thing happens every time I travel. I have a 10-year-old son and when I meet people around the world, even here in America, when I say that I’m journalist and I travel all the time I get asked constantly, and you have a son? It always bothered me that my husband never gets that question, ever.

Roepe: Is there anything you want to elaborate on about the challenges you’ve encountered in the industry?

van Zeller: I was pregnant, working for Current TV at the time, and that I traveled all around Africa and here in America, doing documentaries for Current TV. I traveled up until I was seven months pregnant. I was six months pregnant traveling in Africa, basically getting my ultrasounds done there, and when I came back there was a discussion about the state California pays for half of your maternity leave, and then it’s up to the company to pay for your other half, and that year I had done more stories, more documentaries than any of my male counterparts, correspondents. I had to go and ask them to [pay] half because the state of California pays for the other half because it wasn’t something that they were thinking of doing.

Roepe: Do you have a favorite episode of Trafficked?

van Zeller: The two-hour episode we did on guns is incredibly powerful, and it’s about a subject that I’ve been wanting to explore for a long time. I had done stories on guns here in America and the impact that they have in the United States, but I’ve always wanted to do something about the impact that American guns have around the world, in particular in Latin America and in Mexico.

In 2019, there were 35,000 Mexicans that were killed, and we know that over 70 percent of the guns … illegal firearms that are found in Mexico are American guns. There’s only one gun store in Mexico, and I heard that this again and again when we were reporting on that story about how they see Americans…they look at Americans being the [source] for guns for them. There was one line that always stuck with me, which one of the guys in the interview said—America provides the guns and Mexico provides the corpses.

I think we know a lot about the violence associated with the guns in the America, and mass shootings but we don’t know enough about the impact that American gun laws have around the world.

You may also like:


Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who writes about women in the workplace and issues related to gender and diversity. Her work has appeared in Fast Company, Business Insider, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, Marketplace, Quartz, CQ Researcher and The Week. Follow her on Twitter: @lisarab.