In a world where fake news, click bait and reality star headlines are on the rise, TV journalist and documentary maker Mariana van Zeller is the real deal.
The winner of numerous prestigious journalism awards for her investigative work, she’s been undercover in Syria to report on the jihadis who crossed the border to fight Americans in the Iraq war, camped in the Amazon rainforest to expose diamond miners, and ridden a freight train with desperate Central American migrants to highlight the deadly risks they take to reach the US.
“I guess fear and curiosity have driven me since I was younger,” van Zeller says. “But curiosity always wins. I like to place myself in other people’s shoes, to try to understand where they’re coming from, even if I don’t agree with what they’re doing.”
Her latest offering, the second of her Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller National Geographic documentary series, continues to look at the inner workings of the world’s multi-trillion dollar shadow economy. It sees her head to Ghana to meet the criminals raking in millions in romance scams, as well as exposing the illegal fishing trade and American white supremacist hate groups.
“There were moments when I was truly shocked,” says van Zeller. “It was difficult to sit down and have a conversation with these drug traffickers, scammers and smugglers, but my job as a journalist is to report truthfully what is going on in the world.
“Empathy is our most powerful tool, and I tried to treat each person as a human being. The romance scammers, for example, a lot of them have come from nothing, literally from the slums, so although I don’t condone what they are doing, I can understand why.”
The series is more topical now than ever, with black markets across the globe flourishing during the pandemic. In the UK alone, romance scamming – that is, swindling someone out of money by pretending to be in a relationship – rose by 20 per cent during lockdown.
The UN also reported that major drug markets on the dark web are now worth at least £233m. Despite these figures, of the 10 episodes van Zeller filmed it was the white supremacists that shocked her the most.
“That was the hardest and the scariest episode to film of the entire series,” says van Zeller. “Having said that I try to empathise with everyone I meet, it’s almost impossible, if not impossible, to speak to a neo-Nazi who is spouting racist ideologies and violence when all I want to do is walk away, or punch them in the face.
“And while you wouldn’t necessarily think of white supremacy as a black market, we found that these organisations operate like one. Instead of dealing in drugs and guns, they’re putting hateful ideas in people’s minds.”
Van Zeller manged to tackle these harrowing subjects – including black market plastic surgery and illegal loggers and arsonists in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest – during a worldwide pandemic which saw many of the countries she was visiting going into lockdown.
“It was a challenge to be away from my family for so long,” she says. “But even though I missed them I knew I was doing an important job. I was setting a good example to my 11-year-old son.
“The pandemic made things increasingly difficult. The world was shutting down and we were travelling all over the place. It was interesting seeing how all these countries were dealing with it. Ghana, for example, has far less resources than many but our crew were all tested on arrival and weren’t allowed to leave the airport until we received a negative result.”
Leaving home to travel across the world in the name of journalism is nothing new to van Zeller. In 2001 she moved across the Atlantic from her hometown of Cascais, Portugal, to New York to study journalism at Columbia University.
“I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was 12,” says van Zeller. “When I was growing up the evening news was mandatory viewing, and I thought the news readers were the smartest human beings on Earth – I had no idea they were reading from a teleprompter.
“But that’s how I knew so early on that this career was for me. I applied to Columbia University twice and was rejected twice, so in the end I flew to New York and knocked on the dean’s door.”
Just a month after van Zeller began her studies the 11 September terror attacks took place, and within hours she was live on-air reporting for Portuguese broadcaster SIC Notícias.
“That moment changed everything for me,” says van Zeller. “I realised not only that I wanted to report the news, but I wanted to get behind it too. I wanted to understand who was doing this and why. Not long after I enrolled in Damascus University, in Syria, and began learning Arabic while reporting on Middle Eastern affairs.”
Van Zeller’s investigative reporting on the Iraq-Iran border went on to clinch her a nomination for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2008.
“It was a crazy time,” recalls van Zeller. “I remember sending rugs home to my mum in Portugal, who would sell them and then send the money back to me. But I had to adapt like that. Even now, whenever I’m faced with something difficult I try to be optimistic.
“The same goes for reporting on black markets. It would be easier to bury my head in the sand and to think that it’s all happening overseas and doesn’t affect me, but these markets make up almost half of the global economy. They’re happening right in our backyard, and while reporting on them is incredibly challenging, it’s also incredibly important.”
Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller airs Mondays at 9pm on National Geographic.