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How Trafficked films ‘risky and dangerous situations’—and deals with ‘holy sh*t’ moments

How Trafficked films ‘risky and dangerous situations’—and deals with ‘holy sh*t’ moments
Mariana van Zeller in the season-three black market organs episode of her show Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller. Season four is filming now. (Image via National Geographic)

Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller has, since its debut in 2020, explored dangerous, underground markets, filming people, behavior, and transactions that are often the subjects of movies.

For the third season (National Geographic, Wednesdays at 9; Hulu, Thursdays), Mariana van Zeller will explore subjects including black market organs, LSD, MDMA, 3D-printed ghost guns, identity theft, bare-knuckle fighting, surrogacy in Ukraine, and crypto scams. (She’s filming season four now.)

So how does one get access and then permission to film such illicit activities? It’s not easy, as show host and journalist Mariana van Zeller told me when I interviewed her last week at the Television Critics Association winter press tour.

A masked man wearing black sits in the passenger seat of a car talks to a woman with blonde hair in a ponytail
Mariana van Zeller talks to a cartel source in the black market organs episode of Trafficked. (Image via National Geographic)

“The hardest part of my job is getting people to talk to us, being able to gain access into these worlds,” van Zeller told me. “There’s actually a lot of stories that we pick and then they don’t go anywhere.

One way of gaining access and creating relationships with sources is by working with those who already have existing connections. “We have amazing local investigative journalists that we can partner up with,” she said. “Those people that are the unsung heroes in our profession, the fixers, the local producers.”

Doing this work as a documentary reality television show “makes everything harder,” Mariana told me. “I think our print friends and colleagues have it easier than we do in many ways.”

“People are willing to talk. But once you bring in a camera, it’s really hard. There have been situations in which we have everything set up, we’ve explained everything, they know it’s for television, they sit down, and they’re not comfortable with the situation, and they leave.

“Then we have to start from scratch,” she added. “It’s very frustrating having to travel around the world for something that you think is guaranteed, and then you wait and wait and wait, and people don’t show up. That happens constantly.”

Filming illicit activities

A woman talks to a man with a black head covering concealing his face. An open laptop and phone sit on the hood of a car next to them.
Mariana van Zeller talks to a source in the identity theft episode of Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller season 3. (Image via National Geographic)

What’s been captured by the show’s cameras is often far from legal, but there are boundaries Mariana van Zeller has established.

“There are limits that I impose on myself, and things that I’d never want to see: if there’s any actual physical harm being done to a human being, or to even an animal,” Mariana told me. “That is something that I’m not comfortable, and we will never film on Trafficked.”

“People ask if law enforcement has approached us,” she said. “None of the things that we have covered are things that law enforcement isn’t aware of, or isn’t actively investigating. What we do is bring it out, expose it in a way that hopefully will be used by law enforcement to do their own investigations, but we will not ever give them our sources, because that is what we should always do as journalists is protect our sources. So we take that very seriously.”

Despite the challenges of reporting and filming, Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller’s episodes frequently include beautiful cinematography.

In the black-market organs episode, there’s a drone shot that lets us watch from high overhead as a cartel member walks from his car to Mariana’s vehicle for an interview. I was curious how the production was able to get shots like that.

“This is National Geographic, and it’s known to have some of the best images in the world, right? So we really wanted to bring that cinematic look to the show,” Mariana said. “There are moments—depending on the patience and the time of the people we’re filming with—they will allow us to do things like drone shots, or wide shots, and all these other angles that I think elevate the show. They’re not necessary for the content, but I think they are a better depiction of the worlds that we’re portraying.”

In the case of the interview with the cartel member, Mariana told me, “We asked him: Do you mind? We just want to get some drone shots. This is somebody that I’d worked with before—I had filmed him for another story we’d done on cocaine trafficking, so he was actually patient, and was willing to do so.”

But that approach doesn’t always work. “Others, it’s in and out: they’re there, they’re uncomfortable, they don’t feel like they want to spend more time,” she said. “Other [times, it’s] just not wise or safe for us to do so. It’s just not worth it to spend time in these risky and dangerous situations just to get a couple of extra shots.”

Trafficked’s ‘holy shit’ moments

A masked man wearing black. The mask has digital eyes and a long, wide smile glowing in light blue
A masked source in the MDMA episode of Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller. (Image via National Geographic)

Despite those “risky and dangerous situations,” Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller’s production usually does not include a large a security team.

“Sometimes we travel with security, but the majority of times we don’t,” Mariana said. “I actually think it’s detrimental to the work we do, because what we’re trying to do is get people to trust us, and if we show up with security, that doesn’t really show them that we’re trusting them.”

The show is filmed by “a small team of six people”: three in camera and sound, plus a director, producer, and van Zeller herself. A local producers or fixer might sometimes be the seventh crew member.

Despite all the preparation and relationship-building, things sometimes go awry. “Every season, there’s many of these ‘holy shit’ moments,” Mariana told me.

She told a story about one that happened while filming a season-three episode. We were talking in Pasadena, Calif., and she said the production were “just 10, 15 minutes from where we are right now, here in Los Angeles. We were doing a story about ghosts guns, unlicensed and traceable, super easy to put together to assemble, and we were in the house of [people] linked to the Sinaloa Cartel, and they were putting together and assembling these guns. This was at night, and a buyer came in to buy one of these guns. He’d been warned; we told him that we were there with cameras. Yet when he arrived, and he saw the cameras, he wasn’t happy. He was very angry, and he started actually threatening myself and my group, yelling at us. We stopped filming, reassessed the situation, and were able to get out of there safely. That same night, he actually used that gun and was arrested. This was one of those moments where we sort of stop everything we’re doing and think, What could we have done differently? And how can we prevent this from happening in the future?

While ghost guns are certainly being trafficked on the black market, Trafficked season three is also exploring subjects like crypto and surrogacy in Ukraine, so I wondered if the show was expanding beyond the definition of “trafficking.”

Trafficked is about global black markets, these illegal activities that are happening around the world,” Mariana explained. “We really try to pick subjects that we see in the headlines almost every day, and give our viewers the opportunity of going behind the headlines, gaining unique access to these worlds. Whether we’re talking about ghost guns that are being discovered more and more in crime scenes across America; or the war in Ukraine and how that affected the surrogacy industry, where a lot of American babies were actually caught inside the war; or crypto scams.”

Even well-covered stories offer opportunity. “We spent the whole year hearing about crypto scams and yet, with Trafficked, we give you an opportunity to meet the scammers,” Mariana said. “Who are the people who are making money by stealing it from Americans? Cyber piracy [has] become one of the biggest illegal industries in the world. Nowadays, our data is more valuable than even oil. So all these stories that we hear about, but we don’t know exactly what happens, how they’re how they’re operating, and who’s operating in these black markets.”

Despite this important content, Mariana told me, “I don’t want people to think: Oh my god, a show about black markets, that must be really depressing and dark. I don’t want to spend my time doing that; I’d rather be watching The Kardashians.”

Her work and reporting on Trafficked has helped Mariana change her perspective.

“It completely changes all your preconceived ideas about the world. All these people that we consider the bad guys—the traffickers, the outlaws, the criminals—we think of them as people that we have nothing in common with,” she said.

“If you watch Trafficked, you realize that these are human beings, much like you and me, and because of a lack of opportunities—a lot of times, not always, but a lot of times—and because of the inequality that exists in this world, they find themselves having to resort to illegal and black markets.”

“What I’m hoping [the show] will do,” Mariana added, “is deepen our connection, our understanding of the world, but also our connection with other human beings—even those that we don’t think we have a lot in common with.”

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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Thursday 19th of January 2023

This show fascinates me. Sometimes, I can't believe it's happening, but I know it is. She's braver than I am. There's no way I'd go where she goes. But I appreciate the work she does so we can understand what is happening.