Journalist Mariana van Zeller Might Have the World's Scariest Job
The award-winning investigative journalist investigates everything from the black market arms to cocaine trades.
Mariana van Zeller is the definition of a go-getter. As a student, she earned her international relations undergraduate degree, and began working on commercial TV in her native Portugal before applying to Columbia University in NYC to follow her dreams and earn a journalism degree from one of the best master’s programs in the world. When the school denied her three times, she dropped everything, moved to New York City, knocked on the dean’s door, and convinced him to admit her. This was mid-August 2001. Two or three weeks later, van Zeller found herself thrust into the world of journalism, as the only Portuguese reporter in Manhattan at the time to cover the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “I was 24 years old in Midtown on the rooftop of a high-rise surrounded by international journalists from all around the world,” she says. “And I became the first face people saw in Portugal talking about what was happening.”
The harrowing experience inspired van Zeller to pursue a career in investigative, documentary-style reporting. “I wanted to dive deeper into issues and really contextualize what was happening,” she says. “So, a year later I moved to the Middle East and started working from there.” Since then, the fearless, now Peabody award-winning journalist and co-founder of production company Muck Media, earned a reputation for covering various dark underworlds and criminal networks around the globe. She was even once scooped by Sean Penn, who famously landed an interview with drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman after he escaped from prison in 2011. “I didn’t really mind being scooped by Sean Penn,” she says with a laugh. “But my pride was definitely hurt.”
With her latest series, Trafficked, now airing on National Geographic, she explores the dangerous inner workings of various black and informal markets around the world, from cocaine to firearms. In following their chain of custody, she hopes to give a 360-view of these global underworlds from smugglers to law enforcement to those caught up in between. “After spending over 15 years reporting in these worlds and getting to meet these traffickers, drug dealers, and other people that are really stereotyped in our society, I’ve come to realize the uncomfortable truth that most are not very different from us,” she says. “Their goals and aspirations in life are very similar. And a big goal for me with this series, was obviously not excuse them, but to try to understand why people do what they do and see what we can learn and what the impact is that these people have in our life.”
TV Dreams: Van Zeller says she has known that she wanted to become a journalist since she was 12. “I watched the Portuguese TV anchors talking about what was happening all over the world and I just thought they were so knowledgeable and the most interesting and incredible people in the world,” she says. “I had no idea they were reading from a teleprompter — I thought they had memorized all of these things. And I decided this is it. I want to be as smart and knowledgeable as a journalist.”
In Plain Sight: Van Zeller says one of the most surprising things about her work, particularly on Trafficked, was that she was able to find underground markets close to home. She says one scene of traffickers loading AK47s and other weapons into a car in the middle of the night, was shot about 15 minutes from her L.A. home. “There is not a lot known about the informal economy, and yet it makes over 60% of the global economy," she says. “And these black markets are all around us. It’s important for us to know that and to understand how they operate if we really want to stop them.”
The Chase: “I’m more sort of attracted to these worlds that are very hard to gain access to. I think those are the most interesting stories,” says van Zeller, admitting that her work does sometimes bring her into dangerous situations. One moment in particular, while filming for Trafficked, she and her team found themselves stuck between a Mexico cartel and the military. “[A cartel member] turned to us, and very clearly said to me, ‘We can protect you while you’re here, but if the marines, the military show up, then it’s another story.” The military did indeed start to show up. But her team made it out safely. And the experience hasn’t dimmed her fire for pursuing tough stories one bit. “There is so much we can learn about these undergrounds and in these criminal networks. And so much that we can take from it," she says. "And ultimately the goal for every journalist is the truth. I think you can only get that with boots on the ground reporting.”
The Heart in Darkness: “I really think that with empathy and understanding we can start to change the things that aren’t working in the world,” says van Zeller. “The main goal is to just really understand. Like, what makes a 15-year-old kid travel with 20 kilos of cocaine in a backpack for days on end outside of the Amazon jungle in Peru?” The boy, whom van Zeller interviewed, apparently wanted to become a dentist, but his family didn’t have the funds to send him to school. “He realized the only way he can make money to eventually go to college was to start carrying cocaine out of the Amazon, basically trafficking cocaine in Peru,” van Zeller says. “And when I asked him why he wanted to a dentist, he said, ‘Because I want to make people smile.’ It’s these moments that I hope really resonate.”
Future Explorer: When van Zeller isn’t digging deeper into underground societies across the globe, she loves spending time at home with her husband, father, and 10-year-old son, Vasco. The whole adventurous family likes to take advantage of the L.A. outdoors, hiking, surfing, and doing yoga. Van Zeller says, despite all of her daring work, she considers becoming a mom the most badass thing she has ever done. “I mean, I don’t think anyone realizes what it means to be a mother, especially for a person like myself who likes to spend half, more than half of my life on the road,” she says. “That is the one thing in my life and I’m like, holy shit, I can’t believe I have a kid and he’s awesome and he’s happy and that I’m able to make this work. It’s all because of him.” Will he be following in his mom’s footsteps when he grows up? “He is definitely curious. He loves to travel as much as I do. His name is Vasco as the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama so he definitely has exploration in his genes,” says van Zeller. “Right now, he says he wants to be a rock star, an actor, and a journalist — all three at the same time, so let’s see which one wins!”
Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on National Geographic.