Mariana van Zeller is one cool cookie. Either that or she is more than a little unhinged. OK, so let’s settle for driven, which you would have to be to voluntarily put yourself in mortal danger, time after time, and all in the line of your chosen professional pursuit.
Van Zeller is an award-winning correspondent and investigative journalist who is currently hosting the Trafficked series on the National Geographic Channel. The season, which opened on January 11, unveils some of the murky inside machinations of the international underworld, taking in the likes of counterfeit money makers in Peru, cocaine dealers deep in the jungles of Mexico, and illegal steroid experimentation in the seemingly straitlaced suburbs of Sacramento, California. In one episode, due to be broadcast here on January 25, van Zeller digs into the multibillion dollar scamming scene in Jamaica and right here in Tel Aviv.
This isn’t any old documentary production. The eight-parter takes viewers into some of the darkest, most hostile and most dangerous places on planet Earth, as van Zeller strides into all manner of encounters, and circumstances that most sane people wouldn’t consider taking on even in their worst nightmares.
But van Zeller isn’t your everyday reporter, even considering the scrapes journalists at the investigative end of the business tend to find themselves in. The 44-year-old Portuguese has been in the game for a while, starting out with the SIC Noticias cable news channel in her country of birth, before being parachuted in to cover the immediate aftermath of 9/11 for the same station shortly after she moved to New York.
Since then she has also looked into shady business dealings behind the powerful drug Fentanyl, the drug war in Mexico, sexual violence on American Indian reservations, and prescription drug abuse and pill trafficking. The latter brought her a Peabody Award, a Television Academy Honor and an Emmy nomination.
After accruing so much eye-opening street level experience across the world I wondered if she went about her work any differently in Tel Aviv, and whether there was anything special about the way the scamming world works here. Viewers, it seems, can expect to witness marked contrasts between the Jamaican and Israeli scamming arenas. “I would say it [the Tel Aviv scamming scene] was night and day from the scamming world in Jamaica,” van Zeller says. “The scamming in Israel that we looked into, the financial scamming, was mostly happening in the financial district, in high rises, in offices right next to legitimate businesses. It was all covered in a sort of blanket of legitimacy. But, you poke a little bit, and going inside, undercover, into one of these companies and figuring out what was inside, you realize that it’s not legitimate. That was really interesting, the cover of legitimacy and what surrounds it.”
That may have been something of a shocker for van Zeller but she says she didn’t feel more threatened here than anywhere else she has courageously or, possibly, foolhardily ventured. It helped that she wasn’t entirely working in uncharted territory. “I love Tel Aviv,” she notes. “I have been there a few times and I love the city.”
SHE KNEW her way about the place before she came here to get a closer look at the scamming scene, whereby the criminal operators offer unsuspecting victims the chance to rake in huge dividends from stock market and other investments. “Logistically it was very easy. Things work very well [in Israel],” she says. But that doesn’t mean it was a walk in the park. At the end of the day van Zeller was not here to do a nice little, family-friendly, number on, say, baby panda bears or even dig into the Israeli political scene. The scamming reportage gig involved meeting with all sorts of criminal elements who, presumably, would not think twice of disposing of the pesky investigative journalist should she, wittingly or unwittingly, cross the border of what they deemed to be inviolable.
“I was definitely more nervous, at times, especially when doing the undercover filming. Pretty much most of Trafficked, the series, was filmed with the knowledge of the people we were filming, and this was one of the only scenes we filmed undercover for the whole first season. It is nerve-racking, pretending you’re somebody else no matter how many times you’ve done it, and I’ve done it many, many times before.”
And there is the other side of the criminal equation, the casualties of the nefarious deeds themselves, and those who constantly put themselves on the line in order to bring the facts to light, and who also facilitate van Zeller’s work. “Speaking to the victims, and to the journalists who have investigated this, knowing full well what can happen if you keep on investigating, and disclose what is actually happening, the illegality of it all – that is nerve-racking.”
It is fascinating watching van Zeller go about her work. She does not come across as an imposing figure – she is certainly no Mike Wallace or Howard Stern.
But, it seems, therein lies the secret to her ability to get down and dirty with this rogue’s gallery of characters. We frequently see her feet, clad in what looks like footwear used for comfort rather than looking to make some fashion statement. That is typical of the van Zeller ethos. She almost always seems unruffled, even when she asks a masked scammer, flanked by armed bodyguards, if she should be concerned about her personal safety. She also feels that being a woman helps to put her interviewees at ease.
She says she wanted to make the current series in order to advise the public about what she calls “the informal economy, the black market” which, she notes, “makes up almost half of the global economy.”
At the end of the day, van Zeller says we all want to be listened to, even people who engage in criminal activity and inflict financial, emotional or physical damage on innocent victims. “No matter how far we travel into the edges of our society we can still find people who are relatable and redeemable.”
Whether senior citizens, for example, who lost the nest egg they were accruing to see out their days in some degree of comfort, to some scheming scammer, would agree with that is debatable. But one can only wonder at van Zeller’s courage at chasing these stories down and, hopefully, her work will help to keep us and whatever wherewithal we may have managed to accumulate over the years safe, especially in these trying and uncertain times.