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Taking A Deep Dive Into The Criminal Underworld: An Investigative Journalist Shares Her Experience With Us

She speaks about her latest show 'Trafficked With Mariana Van Zeller'


  • Tuesday, 19 January 2021
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Taking A Deep Dive Into The Criminal Underworld: An Investigative Journalist Shares Her Experience With Us
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC/MUCK MEDIA

Journalist Mariana Van Zeller


Ever wondered what motivates someone to get into the world of crime?

We're not just talking about the rich heads who seem to lead a life of luxury and have power, but all the henchmen who risk their lives and safety to do what they do?

National Geographic's 'Trafficked With Mariana Van Zeller' takes a deep dive into the criminal underworld in several countries and find out how it works, the people involved in it and more. 

Rojak Daily managed to have a quick chat with investigative journalist Mariana Van Zeller to learn more about the show. 

Why would the subjects talk to a journalist?

A shot from 'Titans of Scam' episode
One of the first questions that popped into our heads when we watched some of the episodes was: "How did Van Zeller get those involved in criminal activities to talk to her?".

You'd think secrecy would be key in keeping their businesses and themselves safe. 

The interviewees are anonymous, with their faces covered and voices altered, but Van Zeller and her team do visit them at their work spaces. 

Van Zeller thinks that the subjects' willingness to speak comes from a combination of factors, with ego playing a big part. 

"You know, these are some of the best people at what they do. They're the best people at printing fake money, or the best sellers of steroids or the best packers of drugs.

"Their families and their loved ones don't even know what they do. So, we give them an opportunity to disguise their faces and protect their identities to be able to talk about what they do best," she said. 


It is not often criminals are given such praises, but when you watch the docuseries, you can't help but acknowledge that many of those featured have exceptional talent for what they do. 

From the currency forger who perfect the colour and look of a counterfeit money, to scammers who know just what to say and when to quit, pulling off the perfect crime without getting caught is no easy task. 

Van Zeller said that another reason is that those she spoke to felt a certain level of impunity. These people have been successfully doing their businesses without getting caught for years so they did not see the downside of talking to a well-known name like National Geographic. 

Lastly, she said, a lot of them want people to know their stories and that they aren't all bad. 

"At the end of the day, I think we all want to feel some sort of connection to the other.

"That you can travel to the furthest fringes of our society and still find people that are relatable and redeemable is very important. I think that's one of the reasons why they agreed to talk to us," she told us.

Gaining trust

It's not easy getting an entry to these secret worlds
Gaining the trust of those who usually remain under the radar is perhaps the key to sucessfully get the show going. 

Van Zeller said that this usually takes months, if not years, to build the kind of rapport necessary. For every yes that her team gets, there are dozens and dozens of no's. 

She explained that that's the part that you don't usually see on camera but it's absolutely the most challenging part of her work and her team's job. 

"At the end of the day, it's all about building trust. The biggest fear is that we're law enforcement. So what they want to learn and to make sure is that we're actually the people we say. We are journalists," the investigative journalist, who has more than 15 years of experience in covering the black market, said. 

A lot of time, nothing happens without a first meet without cameras or any recording devices. 

"This is what I call the 'underground first dates' where we get to share a drink and talk.

"I think the most important part in these situations is approaching people at the same level, with respect, dignity and trust because if you do, they will trust and respect you back and a lot of times will give us access into these worlds," she said. 

Preconceived notions and the need for emphathy 

They're not all bad, always
We all have a certain image of people involved in crime and none of them good, right? Hardened criminals, gangsters, 'sampah masyarakat'; the list goes on. 

The sentiments may not be exactly the same considering Van Zeller's years of experience in the field, but her views of the criminal underworld and those involved in it did change after shooting the show. 

"I think my biggest takeaway from this show is we tend to... it's easier and more comfortable to look at the world as black and white. Them as the bad people and us as the good ones.

"I think what this show has shown me, and I hope it shows the people who watch it, is that the world is a lot more gray than that. Actually a lot more colorful, as I like to say it," she said. 

She added that it was hard not to emphatise and to realise that we are all humans and have a lot more common that we'd like to think. 

From the episode 'Sex Trafficking'
"A lot of the people that we interviewed are sons and daughters and mothers and fathers. They have families, they love, they fear...We're all human beings.

"So, being able to show that and being able to empathise with the most stereotyped and stigmatised people in our society, was very, very important for me. And I hope it's a clear message of this show," Van Zeller said. 

It may be hard to imagine emphatising with criminals who don't just break the laws but many times hurt others, knowingly or unknowingly.

However, when you watch 'Trafficked with Marianna Van Zeller', the notion doesn't sound so odd. 

While the show explores the mechanics of the criminal underground, it also tells the stories of some of the individuals involved. 

"Who are the criminals? Who is it who wakes up one morning and decides I want to be a criminal, right?

"More often than not, we realised, that you become a criminal or an outlaw because of lack of opportunities," Van Zeller said. 

She quite passionately spoke about inequality, the lack of opportunity and poverty leading to people's involvement in the black market. 

'Money Runners', an episode on counterfeit money
"If you hear these stories, none of these are easy jobs either.

"If you spend time with a 'Mochileros', a teenagers that transport cocaine out of the rain Valley in Peru, and you hear how they've seen their best friends being killed in front of them and you understand, and then you ask them, why are they doing this incredibly dangerous work for almost no money?" Van Zeller shared. 

Often, the answer is along the lines of "that's the only thing that pays".

She shared the story of one of the teenagers she met while shooting an episode on cocaine and was told that he wanted to go to college and become a dentist so he can make people smile. Transporting drugs was the only way he knew how to get enough money to achieve his dreams. 

'Cocaine Highway' episode
"How do you not empathize? I think you don't have a heart if you don't.

"But that doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of bad people out there and doing very bad things," she clarified. 

In one of the episodes that touches on scammers, you can clearly see that the person who was interviewed felt no remorse over her actions. 

Sharing her story of poverty and desperate need of money to get her mother's surgery done, she tells viewers her journey into the underworld but her character was not one that elicits sympathy. 

Despite the back story, she shows no remorse and called Americans "stupid" for falling for scams. 

"Some people were definitely harder to empathise than others. I'm not saying that we have to justify or understand all of their motives, but at least I think we have to hear about them and learn them," Van Zeller opined. 

Shining the light on rarely spoken about part of the global economy



'Trafficked with Mariana Van Zeller' shines the light on the black market, which makes up a big chunk of the global economy. 

"One thing that I started realising was that there is so much information out there about the formal economy. There's whole magazines and newspapers and organizations devoted to studying every twist and turn up and down of the formal economy.

"Yet informal economies — black and gray markets — actually make up for half of the global economy. And we know very little about them," Van Zeller said, adding that that was one of the impetus for coming up with the show. 

Covering a variety of topics, from gun supplies and counterfeit money to drugs and prostitution, the show gives a glimpse into these criminal worlds and its inhabitants in a way that few other shows does. 

If you're as intrigued as us about the criminal underworld and black market, catch 'Trafficked With Mariana Van Zeller' beginning Friday, 22 January at 10pm on National Geographic (Astro CH571 SD | CH551 HD / Unifi TV CH508 HD).

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