Mariana van Zeller’s Take on Pimps and How to End the Drug War

Mariana van Zeller’s Take on Pimps and How to End the Drug War

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because traveling into hearts of darkness sometimes requires a heart of gold.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Mariana van Zeller, the Peabody Award–winning Portuguese journalist and speaker of at least six languages, stopped by The Carlos Watson Show to discuss pimps, drug lords and the absence of fear in the face of mortal peril. The following are some of the best cuts from the full conversation, which you can find on the show’s podcast feed.

Fear: A friend, or an enemy to be feared

Carlos Watson: Are you ever scared? Do you find yourself scared?

Mariana van Zeller: Not very often. Certain situations, but not so much with people. I’m afraid of big animals, for example. One of the episodes we did [on National Geographic Channel’s Trafficked With Mariana van Zeller] is about tiger trafficking, and we spent a night sleeping in the forest in Thailand, basically out in the wild in an area where there’s some of the last remaining tigers in Thailand. And so I knew we were out in the hammock out in the open and surrounded by these wild creatures, including tigers. So in that situation, I was scared all night, and I couldn’t sleep. But when it’s sort of embedding with the Sinaloa cartel or gun traffickers or what, I would say that the majority of times, whenever there’s sort of a battle in my mind between fear and curiosity, curiosity always wins. And so far, so good. So far it’s worked in my favor.

Watson: Why do you think it is? I just had a very interesting conversation with the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, and he was talking about the fact that he thinks we don’t talk enough about luck, both good luck and bad luck, and how much that exists in the world. So when I think about all the dangerous situations you’ve been in and the fact that you still are able to choose curiosity over fear, do you think that’s just something about you? Most of us, if we encountered that many kind of scary situations — Sinaloa, drug trafficking, pimps, what have you — we’re going to go the other direction.

Van Zeller: I think I’ve always been like this from when I was a young girl.… My dad is sort of a well of information and has always been, and I remember always feeling like I was not going to be able … I had a huge crisis when I was about 9 years old where I locked myself in a room, and I told my mom that I was not smart. And I wanted to be smart, and I wanted to know much more than I did. I didn’t want to just be a blond, cute little girl. I wanted more than that. And I remember her telling me, “The fact that you’re doubting your intelligence is a sign in itself of intelligence,” and she did what you do as a mother: You’re nice, and you assure your child that they’re wrong in that situation.

And then when I was about 12 years old, I used to watch the nightly news show with my parents, my family, every single night. And I used to watch these anchors on Portuguese television just talk about the world, and they knew everything about what was happening around the world. I had no idea they were reading from the teleprompter, but that was sort of the moment that I realized, “Oh my God, this is it. I want to know as much as they do, and if that means becoming a journalist, that’s what I want to do.” So I think it’s partly that. But I also think that the reason … I think luck plays a part in why so far, although I’ve been in so many dangerous situations, nothing has happened to myself or my team.

Perhaps luck plays a little part of it, but I actually think it’s much more the way that we approach these worlds and the people that we encounter and that I particularly encounter in these worlds. If you’re nervous, if you treat people … if you show up and you act suspiciously and you’re nervous and you don’t treat people with respect, or you show them that you’re afraid of them or that you doubt them, that’s how they’re going to treat you back. So I try to treat everybody, whoever they are, with the same sort of level, with respect, with trust, and I think that goes back to me in a way.

Watson: What’s the most dangerous situation or world you’ve been exposed to?

Van Zeller: Many. I mean, I’ve spent more time reporting in Sinaloa than anywhere else in the world. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been surrounded by sicarios, Mexican gunmen, in situations where, for example, the Mexican marines were coming, and they were getting ready for a firefight. And they told us, “If this happens, you’re going to be stuck in the middle, and we cannot protect you, and you could be possibly killed.”

And then we saw the marine helicopter coming our way, and they start fleeing, and we weren’t sure what we should do, if we should start getting in a car and follow them. And then if they start shooting, they would start shooting at us too, or if we should stay and try to hide.

There was another situation, also in Sinaloa, where we went to look for a chopper when he [El Chapo] fled the Altiplano high-security prison in Mexico, and we actually managed to get all the way up to La Tuna, which is a small town where he’s from and his mother was still living there. And it’s off-road to the middle of nowhere in the Sierra Madre mountains, sort of the golden triangle of the drugs in Mexico. And once we got there, we immediately were told that we had 10 minutes to get our act out of town or they’d come after us.

I mean, situations with rebels in Nigeria, in the swamps of Nigeria. We’re surrounded by these rebels. I mean, there’ve been so many throughout the years. But there’s an enormous amount of preparation and training that goes into place to minimize the risk because obviously no story is worth a life, and we’re very aware of that.

Pimping: It ain’t easy

Watson: Talk to me about the pimps. What did you learn being around pimps?

Van Zeller: I had done a lot of reporting on sex trafficking, and I’d interviewed sex traffickers before, but I hadn’t interviewed or spent as much time as I did this time around. So part of what I wanted to do for this episode was to really sort of focus on the perpetrators, on the pimps themselves, and try to sort of understand how they do it, why they do it and all that.

It was really hard. It was one of the hardest to produce. I think we reached out to over 100 pimps. It turns out they’re actually not that difficult to find. They promote a lot of their work and their services online, on Instagram, for example.

So if you know a few hashtags and a few code words, you can find them, or people at least that say … you can’t vouch for all of them. Not sure if all of them are actually pimps, the ones we reached out to. But at the end, after reaching out to over 100, I think we got just a handful that came back to us and agreed to eventually sit down with us. And I have to say it was a really hard one for us, for me particularly, to film because, again, it’s this idea that I approach all my subjects with an enormous amount of empathy … I am there to really try to place myself in their shoes and to understand where this comes from. And with them, it was really hard.

I remember interviewing one guy, a pimp who went by the name of Jackknife, and him telling us this story about a woman who fled that works for him, and he cut the soles of her feet with a razor blade. And that was really hard for me to just not leave the room immediately but to keep wanting to listen to his story. But then sort of hearing his story was also staying in the room and hearing the rest of the story — where he grew up, and who were the heroes in his neighborhood, and why he does what he does, and what led to this life essentially — was really fascinating. But the empathy part was hard, for sure.

How to win the drug war

Watson: Talk a little bit about policy changes that you would make, having had the advantage of going deep, and going deep across multiple different sectors, and not only here, but outside of the U.S. If you were able to whisper in the president’s ear or the president-elect’s ear, what would be one of the top two or three things that you’d want that person to consider given all that you’ve seen?

Van Zeller: It would probably be in the president-elect’s ear, because I doubt the president, the outgoing president … But I would say, at the end of the day, black markets exist because of poverty and inequality. That’s the major reason why people enter black markets. And so if we sort of look at drugs, for example, we have to realize, and I would love to tell the president-elect this, that the war on drugs is not working.

We spend billions of dollars, billions and billions of dollars, on a completely failed war, and nothing has changed. The drug epidemic we’re seeing right now, it’s the worst drug epidemic in American history. The overdose rates keep on going up, especially in 2020 with COVID. It’s definitely not working. Violence in Mexico, our neighbor, is also the worst this year, more deaths than ever before, this past year. It’s definitely not working. We have to do something about it.

And so I look at examples, like my country where I grew up, in Portugal, where several years ago they decided to decriminalize the drugs, and it’s been an enormous success. The rates of incarceration have gone down dramatically. Drug overdoses have gone down. The state is spending a lot less money on incarceration rates and spending more money on rehab centers. And for me, it’s not that difficult. It’s about looking a little bit outside the box and looking at examples around the world where it’s worked and realizing and admitting once and for all that what we’re doing currently and the billions we’re spending are just not working.

I also think that, unfortunately, traveling around the world you see that poverty and inequality sort of falls much heavier, it’s a much bigger burden on the shoulders of minorities all around the world. And so those are the people that ultimately have to … That’s what I’m talking about, the lack of opportunity. The sad part about this all is that these are the most ostracized people in our society, right? They’re criminals. And there is such quick judgment and no real willingness to extend a hand or try to understand why a person becomes a criminal.

I really, truly don’t think anyone is born one day and decides, “Well, I’m going to become a criminal, and I want to be a drug trafficker or an arms smuggler,” or whatever it is. The burden falls so heavily on the shoulders of minorities that it’s unfair, and I see it constantly. And so, again, I think if you do not address the root problem, and again, it’s inequality and poverty, you will never be able to combat black markets.