Shots ring out across the barren countryside as a female cartel leader is bundled into a bulletproof car and whisked away by bodyguards.

The terrifying raid from a rival gang, at a remote ranch in Colombia, is just another day in the office for investigative journalist Marianna Van Zeller – who comes face to face with so-called ‘cocaine queens‘ in her new series Trafficked.

In a shocking interview Sonja – a commander in the feared Los Caparros cartel at just 21 – tells Marianna she was drafted into the drug gang by her boyfriend at 16, and forced to cut off a disabled man’s head with a machete in a brutal initiation ceremony.

She also admits to kidnapping a coachload of teenage football players, killing one and forcing others to become narco-soldiers, and murdering a farmer before displaying his body for 10 days as a warning to others.

The shocking episode, exposing the rise of deadly narco queens, is one of ten investigations in the series, which airs on the National Geographic channel from Sunday. 

Elsewhere, Marianna visits a makeshift meth lab in the Mexican jungle, meets members of the mafia in the Amazon and “chilling” far-Right supremacists, as well as investigating rogue plastic surgeons.

But the Portuguese-born filmmaker, 45, claims her calm exterior is no act. 

“I just see people as human beings and I think that goes a long way towards me not being afraid of them,” she tells The Sun.

“If you show people that you trust them, and that you’re treating them with respect, they will treat you with respect and trust back.”

Gangster romance sucked teenager into underworld

When Sonja was growing up in the Bajo Cauca region of Colombia, she dreamed of being a doctor because “I’m kind to people that way”.

Instead, the murder of her father by a paramilitary gang when she was just 12, as well as a teenage romance with a gangster, turned her into a vicious killer.

At 16, she fell for the regional commander of Los Caparros – one of the country’s most powerful criminal groups – attracted by his immense power.

“The way that everyone was afraid of him attracted me,” she says. “People practically used their tongues to clean his boots.”

Sonja ran away from home and was soon pregnant, admitting she “broke my mum’s heart but I’m respected now”.

As well as having several kids by her lover, she began to get involved in the drug business, but was made to prove her loyalty in the most horrific way – after gang members kidnapped a disabled man and ordered her to execute him.

“He begged me not to kill him,” she says. “I didn’t want to do it but my boyfriend said if I didn’t kill him I wouldn’t be accepted into the group. 

“To show him I was worthy, he gave me a machete and told me to cut his throat. I didn’t want to do it, but he insisted. We cut off his head and threw it in the river.”

The journalist observes as a gang packages cocaine
The journalist observes as a gang packages cocaineCredit: National Geographic

Strung up victim’s body for 10 days as ‘warning’

Rising through the ranks, Sonja began overseeing 30,000 acres of fields where farmers grow coca – the main ingredient of cocaine – and pickers are watched over by machine gun-toting bodyguards.

The region was once the domain of legendary drug lord Pablo Escobar and is among the most violent in the world, with over 2,000 murders in 2019.

Violent crackdowns by the Colombian military have resulted in mass deaths and the war between the Los Caparros and bitter rivals the Clan de Golfo – who were behind the shootout while Marianna was at the ranch – claims many more lives. 

In 2019, in a bid to thwart the drug trade, the government paid farmers to destroy coca crops. One unfortunate man, who obeyed the ruling, was murdered by Sonja, who put his body on display for 10 days to deter others from following suit.

She also admits being behind the kidnap of  a coachload of children, on their way to play a local soccer match.

Their mothers pleaded for their release and three were freed. Another was found dead.

Sonja tells Marianna she ordered the kidnapping as part of a “recruitment” drive, where young boys are abducted and forced to become narco-soldiers.

Asked if the remaining teens were alive, Sonja answered: “If they say yes, we send them to the troop. If they say no, we kill them.”

When shocked Marianna tells her it’s “horrible” to take the innocent boys from their family, Sonja replies that you “get used to what you do every day”, adding that the violence is necessary to maintain dominance in the drug trade.

But she admits she feels guilty about the lives she’s taken, explaining: “Sometimes I have nightmares about people who begged for their lives.“

Shortly after Marianna’s interview the leader of Los Caparros was shot dead by the military and his lieutenant, Sonja’s lover, was arrested. The kidnapped footballers were freed and reunited with their families.

Despite her brutal rule, Marianna sees Sonja and many of her fellow ‘soldiers’ as victims themselves. 

“My heart immediately goes out to the victims and to the people and in a case like Sonia, it is so clear to me that she is a victim of the drug war herself. 

“She crossed a line and went from being a victim to being a perpetrator but you can’t understand the perpetrator part without understanding the victim part.

“You can chase her, you can imprison her, you can kill her – but at the end of the day, there’s more and more people that will do what Sonja is doing now, because of poverty and a lack of opportunity.”

With the authorities concentrating on taking out male cartel leaders, their female counterparts are increasingly taking control, with one drug dealer telling Marianna: “It will take a while but women will eventually rule drug trafficking.”

“The pandemic has a lot to do with it,” the journalist explains. “I was hearing about more and more women, single mothers, who lost their jobs and had to figure out a way to bring back food for their families fast, so they join the drug business, or any other black market.”

‘White supremacists terrified me more than cartel assassins’

In the first episode of Trafficked, Marianna explores the crystal meth boom in the US, meeting drug dealers and users, and visiting a huge meth lab in the jungle, where masked men with machine guns showed her how they made tons of the drug to ship across the border.

“I was the first woman to ever set foot in that lab and they were very proud of what they had built, and of the product they were putting out there,” she says. 

“But it was really dangerous because it’s so rudimentary, and there’s a lot of chemicals so if there’s a malfunction in the equipment, they can explode. 

“They were telling us they had been in labs where there had been explosions and friends and colleagues died, so we were trying to get what we needed and get out as fast as possible.”

Despite her dealings with drug lords, dealers and criminals, Marianna says the most chilling episode, for her, is the white supremacy report – which saw her infiltrate far-Right extremist groups in the US. 

“The white supremacy investigation was the one that keeps me awake at night and makes me worry about the world,” she says 

“Sitting across from American Nazis, who are openly inciting violence and calling for a race war, was actually the most chilling and scariest of them all.

“When we have white supremacist attacks, like the ones in New Zealand and Norway, we tend to think of them as lone wolf attacks. 

“That couldn’t be further from the truth. These people are connected to a wider network of white supremacists where they’re being inspired and getting military training from one another. 

“It’s a global network, but instead of putting drugs in people’s bodies or or guns in their hands, they’re putting hateful ideology in people’s minds.”

Trafficked airs on National Geographic for ten weeks, from Sunday 13, at 9pm.