Mariana van Zeller has put herself in dangerous situations to explore the global underworld’s most dangerous, illegitimate markets for her National Geographic series “Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller.” In each episode, she infiltrates a different trafficking network to find the reasons behind the illegal trade of black market organs, LSD, ghost guns, cyber pirates, MDMA, gangs, terrorist oil, crypto scams, fight clubs and black market babies.

This kind of reporting can only be done by going to very iffy locations and dealing with some very scary people. Despite the potential for danger, van Zeller doesn’t travel with a security team.

“We try to not travel with security as much as we can and most often we don’t. I think it’s actually counterproductive to the work that we do,” van Zeller says. “What I’m trying to do by meeting these people – who we consider very dangerous – is also to gain their trust.

“If I’m showing up with a large contingent of security guards with guns behind me, that’s showing them that I don’t trust them.  So, actually, the most important thing is for me to show them ‘I’m here.  I trust you.  I’m here to understand you.’  Again, the idea of empathy before judgment, always I think that goes much farther along.”

The one thing the multiple-award winning journalist has learned over the years is that when she shows trust and respect toward the people with whom she is dealing, they will trust and respect her back.  That hasn’t been the case in every situation but it has happened most of the time.

She discovered when dealing with a cartel in Mexico, she felt safer with them. Once they agreed to speak to her, she was immediately under their protection.

On the other hand, van Zeller was shooting a segment in Los Angeles for her next offering “Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller,” scheduled to air at 9 p.m. Feb. 1 on the National Geographic channel. The filming got very tense.

The segment looks at ghost guns, the new weapon of choice for criminal organizations nationwide. They are popular because they can be built from kits that anyone can buy online without a background check. They have no serial numbers, rendering them untraceable.

Van Zeller set out to expose how a largely unregulated industry had blossomed into a bustling underground market that funnels weapons into very dangerous hands.

“We were filming basically these gangs who are assembling these guns and selling them.  These are the Sureños, who belong to Sinaloa ‑ or are linked, connected to, the Sinaloa Cartel,” van Zeller says. “We saw a buyer come in and buy some of these weapons from this guy.  And it was a very intense moment, because even though the buyer knew we were there filming, he got very angry when he saw the cameras, for some reason.  He was not happy.

“He started threatening us and threatening, in particular, my cameraman, who had the camera.  And it was not an easy moment.  He actually went out that same night and actually used that gun that he bought and ended up being arrested.”

No story is worth a loss of life but van Zeller and her crew decided to continue with that story because of the prevalence of ghost guns.

One thing the journalist has learned is that the black market world exists everywhere. Her crew once filmed a huge drug operation that was happening at the rooftop of a building in Downtown Los Angeles. That gave her a different view of the world in general.

Van Zeller’s biggest surprise this year was in Ukraine after the war had started.

“We were doing a story about the surrogacy industry and I was very surprised to find out that actually Ukraine is very much a center for surrogacy around the world,” van Zeller says. “We were filming with an American couple from California who had spent years trying to get pregnant on their own and then hired a Ukrainian surrogate to carry their baby.

“And then the war broke out, and they spent months not being able to even talk to her.  And to be there the day that they entered Ukraine, this war zone, and where they met the surrogate woman that was carrying their baby, and then the baby was born, and to see them holding the baby for the first time was one of the most emotional moments for me this season.  And it all happened in the middle of a war zone.”

Her determination to tell these kind of stories has earned the series five nominations for News and Documentary Emmys  including Outstanding Crime and Justice Documentary, Outstanding Writing: Documentary for “Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs,” Outstanding Writing: Documentary for “Romance Scams” and Outstanding Promotional Announcement in 2022 and Outstanding Business and Economic Documentary in 2021.

Upcoming episodes on the National Geographic channel  include: “Terrorist Oil,” 9 p.m. Feb. 8; “MDMA,” 9 p.m. Feb. 15; “Black Market Babies,” 9p.m. Feb. 22; “Cyber Pirates,” 9 p.m. March 1; “Gangs,” 9 p.m. March 8; “Crypto Scams,” 9p.m. March 15; and “Fight Clubs,” 9 p.m. March 22.

Episodes stream the next day on Hulu.