Watch Trafficked with Mariana Van Zeller Season 2 on DStv

Mariana Van Zeller: hard questions & hair raising answers

Behind the Screen 17 February 2022

Mariana Van Zeller takes us deeper into the Black Market Surgery, Romance Scammers and White Supremacy episodes of Trafficked Season 2

Mariana Van Zeller: hard questions & hair raising answers

Trafficked investigative journalist Mariana Van Zeller tells us what it’s like to look into the eyes of hate, how romance scammers have the right script for you, and how you can say a whole lot, even when you say nothing at all…

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Inside Trafficked Season 2 with Mariana

Has anyone from the underground markets reached out to you because of Trafficked Season 1?

“Yes. 100%. I've received dozens of messages from people who are either operating in these black markets or know people who are, and who are pitching us stories or giving us access to their worlds.”

Were you able to use any of those contacts for this season?

“Some? Absolutely. Yeah. It's opened doors in many ways. On the other hand, I think the success of the show has also made it harder because people realise that it's the show that's being seen, that’s being watched all over the world.”

What was your starting point for the Romance Scammers episode?

“We started filming Trafficked Season 2 right at the beginning of the global pandemic. We started reporting and seeing how all these different black markets, whether it was guns or drugs, had just exploded. And then we also started hearing that there were these new black markets that popped up, mainly because of the pandemic. And 1 of those was Romance Scamming. It existed before, but not to the scale that it exists now. There was a 300% increase in Romance Scamming during the pandemic. The scammers saw an opportunity to exploit the loneliness that many of us were feeling. We found out that a lot of these scammers were located in Ghana, so we travelled to Ghana after speaking to dozens of victims here in the United States, people who had lost millions of dollars, or given out millions of dollars, to what they thought were the men or women or their dreams. Then in Ghana, we got to see behind the curtain of these operations: who the big scammers are, how they operate, and who they target. It was really fascinating. We tend to think of these romance scammers as men alone in internet cafes, doing their work by themselves, and coming up with all these ideas. It's just not the case. There is an industry built around it. You can go online right now and buy a script. There are several out there for sale that target specific people in specific conditions. If you're a single woman or man, if you're divorced, if you're professional, whatever it is, there's a script out there that helps you when you start chatting with these men and women. There are videos out there we saw – and that was incredible – where there's a person typing that you think is the person you've fallen in love with. You buy those videos online! There's no audio, there's just a video of the person typing and smiling. So, there's a whole industry out there built around these romance scams.”

In the plastic surgery episode, when the medical co-ordinator you spoke to told you about the caseload: “Nothing is impossible.” How did you feel in that moment, knowing what you knew – that it was not only impossible, but deadly?

“It was a huge moment. We had been chasing a whistle-blower to talk to us about the inside of these clinics for months and months and months. We had a team of people trying to get 1 and everybody was scared. Finally, we got somebody on camera willing to tell us something. It wasn't everything. I knew that she was holding back information from us. But at least it was something and it gave us fuel to keep going. We knew back then and there that we were onto something, and we just had to keep trying. Sometimes the omission is more telling than the actual truth. The fact that she was telling me something without telling me shows me that not only that exists, but that she's afraid to tell me. So, there's a lot more to unpack there.”

Which person you spoke to this season seemed to think the most differently from you and what challenges did that present you as an interviewer?

“I would say that the scariest and perhaps the most difficult interview we did all season was with American Nazis, who were inciting violence and talking about wanting a race war to come to America. I approach every person that I interview with empathy, and I try really hard not to judge; I try to place myself in their shoes. But in that situation, it was just incredibly hard to be empathetic, there was just so much hate. It is really hard to stay neutral and to stay calm. But I realised at that moment that my job as a journalist was really to raise awareness about what was happening to this problem of white supremacy around the world. And so, we stayed, and we ended up doing 2 of the episodes that I'm most proud of this season.”

In that episode, more than with any of the other people you spoke to, the white nationalists tended to laugh at your questions. Why do you think that is?

“Very often I'm surrounded by men with guns and masks who are very sexist. That has actually helped me a lot throughout my profession. And I think with the white nationalists, when I first approached them and started talking to them, they were expecting easier questions. You know, how threatening can this woman be? When you start asking the hard questions, in their case, their answer to that was to laugh in an unexpected way. 1 of the scariest moments of the whole season was when we interview that Nazi in the Ukraine, and you can hear his laughter, it's almost like an evil laugh. And for me to say that it's really hard because I don't ever like to portray the people that we interview as evil. I think that it's conditions and usually inequality that leads people to commit evil acts, so I have a hard time finding people to be evil. But in that case, it was hard not to.”

Do you see white nationalist groups radicalising young women online, or is it mostly targeted at young men?

“We did actually talk mostly to men, and most of the people that were willing to talk to us were men, even though we also contacted women. I think as men, there's a sense of identity that male teens in particular, are sometimes seeking. There's a disenfranchisement. There is a need to feel like you belong to something bigger than yourself. That is very common in young boys, basically. And so we saw that it was easier to recruit young men than it was young women. There was this need to feel like they were wanted as part of something. And then they were fed these lies online. What the internet has become, as 1 of the experts told us, is a 24-hour Hate Buffet that is so reachable, and it's right at your fingertips at all times. So, it's become increasingly easy to become radicalised.”

What have you found interesting about the reaction online to the white supremacist episode?

“The blowback that we got from people who were not happy with the episode because they thought it was 1-sided! And my question to them is, always, what's the other side? What is the other side of hate? This is hate. It is not about political parties. It's not about the left or the right. It's about hate. It's about people who openly want to kill other people. And that is where I stand. I always will be incredibly proud of this episode.”

Watch Trafficked 2ith Mariana Van Zeller Season 2 from Thursday, 17 February on National Geographic (DStv Channel 182) at 21:00

National Geographic (DStv Channel 182) is available on DStv Premium, Compact Plus, Compact and Family. To upgrade your existing package, click here. Or if you'd like to Get DStv, find a service that suits your needs here.

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