By Mary Ellen Holden

We first met Marianna van Zeller a year ago when the Geena Davis Institute hosted an Influencer Screening celebrating the launch of Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller, an original series investigating the world’s most complex, dangerous, and harrowing black markets. Nominated for a 2021 News and Documentary Emmy Award, its second season premiered in December on National Geographic Channel, streaming on Hulu. And the third season is greenlit.

Throughout the series, Mariana’s deep investigations into the underworld and her unique ability to provide audiences with an inside, 360-degree view of global trafficking networks, including the perspectives of the trafficking leaders, law enforcement, and people caught in between. She contextualizes the inner workings of trafficking while concurrently shedding light on the world’s multitrillion-dollar shadow economy. Like the Institute, she believes that we need to get at the root of the problem to combat it; systemic understanding will prompt change. She is a 2021 Gracie Award winner for Best Reporter/Correspondent for Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller and received a Critics Choice Real TV award nomination for Best Crime/Justice Show.

Mariana told us, “it has been an enormous advantage for me to be a woman when operating in black markets as I am seen as less threatening. I have been the only journalist ever to step foot in certain locations. Women have an incredible capacity to empathize, making it clear that I’m here not to judge but to listen. These attributes enable me to gain access into these worlds and to expose what is.”

I had the opportunity to interview Marianna van Zeller recently. You will have the chance to meet her at our upcoming Influencer Screening (event date and RSVP details will be announced soon).

Mary Ellen Holden: Can you tell us when you first realized your interest in journalism? What prompted you to concentrate on investigative journalism?

Mariana van Zeller: I was twelve years old, watching the Nightly News with my family every evening. I’d watch the anchors on Portuguese television where I grew up. I told my parents that I wanted to be a journalist as they knew so much about the world; I didn’t realize that they were reading from teleprompters! It was a long pursuit as Columbia University, which had the best Journalism program, turned me down twice. Not satisfied, I flew to New York and knocked on the door to introduce myself to the Dean. My passion and perseverance paid off as I was accepted. One month into the program, 9/11 happened. My former station in Portugal called me as I was the only Portuguese journalist in Manhattan at the time, and at 25 years old, with no onscreen experience, I became the face of the biggest story of our time.

One year later, I moved to Syria and enrolled in the University of Damascus, where I learned Arabic as I wanted to be close to the action. I realized that the Middle East would be the epicenter of news for a long time. My career as an investigative journalist began with my first investigative freelance story about jihadis crossing the border into Iraq to fight against the Americans. This was the start of my coverage of black-market stories.

Mary Ellen: Did you have a female role model?

Mariana: Absolutely, 100% it was Christiane Amanpour. Her coverage of the war in Iraq was really for me. For the first time, I understood that I could do this as a woman – if she could do it, I could do it too.

I remember trying to be Christiane Amanpour, and I wasn’t doing a particularly good job. Then in Syria, I was with my then-boyfriend/now-husband and bought a handheld tourist camcorder to cover our story when I realized I was trying to emulate this person I admire, but she’s not me. It wasn’t until I realized that I had to be myself that I felt comfortable being on camera. The piece aired on Channel Four in the UK.

Mary Ellen: Is your gender an asset or challenge in the field?

Mariana: In this line of work, it is an asset. The world I report on is primarily men. They are the players and leaders in the black markets, and they’re not used to being around women. I explain that I’m not here to judge and that I’m here to understand, which is not what they expect. So listening to their story disarms them in many ways.

I get the question all the time – why do people want to talk to you. It’s a variety of reasons – ego, impunity, I’m seen as less threatening and empathetic. Criminals know they’re considered bad guys, but they feel the need to be understood, and they want to share their stories.

Mary Ellen: Why cover these black and gray markets? What is the value to you as a Journalist and to Nat Geo?

Mariana: Most people don’t realize that black and gray markets make up half of the global economy. Yet so little is known about them. For example, the drug trade alone brings between $400 billion and $600 billion a year. That’s more than all countries’ GDPs except the top twenty richest. And we spend billions of dollars trying to stop the drug trade, and it’s not working. Unless we cover these markets and know why people are motivated to work in them, we will never stop them.

One-half of the world’s population is employed or makes money from these markets, and again we don’t know anything about them. As a journalist, I must try my absolute best to access these worlds and shine a light. Without people to work in underground economies, there would be no black markets.

I realized this is what I wanted to do my entire life. National Geographic saw the importance of this investigative journalism as well. Our stories have global appeal, but black markets can happen in suburban America, downtown LA, or Times Square. So, when selecting stories, we also need to make sure it’s a world we can access.

Mary Ellen: How did the pandemic influence your investigations?

Mariana: There was an explosion in black market businesses during the pandemic. We saw more women becoming involved in the drug trade, an increase in gun scams, and even romance scams. Whenever people lose their jobs, they have to find other ways to make a living. Often they turn to illegal markets because opportunities are available.

Mary Ellen: Please talk a little about the episode on White Supremacy.

Mariana: While you might initially not think the subject fits in a series about black markets, but you’d be wrong. The networks that exist to spread white supremacy worldwide are global networks that operate like drug or gun trafficking networks. But, instead of putting drugs in people’s bodies or guns in people’s hands, they put hateful ideology in people’s heads. We see that on social media, with the Internet and the spread of Americans being trained militarily in Europe and how they organize back in the United States. Spending time with the white supremacists was my scariest experience last year. But I’m so pleased that my team pulled it off. We were filming in September and October with the Proud Boys, and then everything exploded on January 6th. Our episode debuts on January 5th – one day before the first anniversary of the Insurrection at the Capitol.

Mary Ellen: Like the Institute, your focus is on supplying proof to accelerate systemic change. We employ data. What evidence do you rely on?

Mariana: The gift as a journalist is to inform society. Only with an informed society and government can we make sound decisions. So, I focus on underground economies and how they impact our daily lives. I shine a light and provide people with information. This is at the core of what we do because underground economies like white supremacy, drug scams, and guns all impact our lives, whether people are aware of it or not.

Mary Ellen: What do you believe is your “See it, Be it” impact?

Mariana: I hope that audiences see and can relate to my authenticity. I want them to know me as a person with enormous curiosity, persistence, determination, and empathy. These are fundamental skills for anyone who wants to become an investigative journalist.

I can’t speak enough about empathy because I am working hard to give people information about the world around us. But, to do this well and inform audiences, we need to place ourselves in other people’s mindset – and that’s not easy to do when they are criminals and outlaws.

Mary Ellen: What advice would you give to a young woman looking to enter this business?

Mariana: Never give up. Knock on the Dean’s door if you have to. When I was a freelance journalist, I would send ideas to all of these outlets, and no one would get back to me, so I started making phone calls instead of sending emails – change it up, be true to yourself, because eventually a “yes” is going to come.