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Tornadoes Tear Through Southern U.S.; Putin's Warning to the West; Migrants Put Lives At Risk to Reach U.S. Aired 3-4a ET
Aired March 26, 2023 - 03:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LAILA HARRAK, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and welcome to our viewers joining us from the United States and all around the world. I'm Laila Harrak.
Millions across the south and Midwest brace for hail and damaging winds after tornadoes devastate portions of Mississippi and Alabama. We're live in the weather center.
A warning to the west, Vladimir Putin says he will station nuclear weapons in Belarus.
And risking it all for the American dream, a rising number of pregnant women and minors make the dangerous trek through panama for a chance at asylum in the U.S.
We begin with a massive cleanup underway in the Southeastern U.S. after powerful storms that spawned deadly tornadoes barreled through Mississippi and nearby states Friday night. At least 26 people were killed and dozens injured. The secretary of homeland security is set to tour the area later today.
And in the past couple of hours, President Biden approved the Mississippi governor's request for a major disaster declaration to get federal disaster aid flowing as quickly as possible. The mayor of hard-hit Rolling Fork saying his city is gone.
Here's Congressman Bennie Thompson describing the destruction in his home state.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. BENNIE THOMPSON (D-MS) (voice over): It was devastation beyond imagination. People were absolutely stunned is what it just occurred. And so as the night wore on, it was clear that this was something that people have never seen before.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRAK: While people in the devastated region have been helping each other through the sorts through the debris and recounting the horrific details of their near death experiences.
CNN's Nick Valencia filed this report from Rolling Fork, Mississippi. NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is among the harder hit areas of rolling for this community. 2,000 residents are very few portions of it that are untouched by the storm that came through here on Friday night. And this is what's left of a trailer park community. You can see there's not home in sight. All you could see really is the debris that's been scattered throughout this field.
And earlier, we spoke to a man who lived right here named Elijah Washington. He said that several of the people that live in this area perished. And though he was able to get out without a scratch, we've heard that from several eyewitnesses that this led to a lot of deaths right here in this community. Officials have yet to verify that, but that's what we're hearing from my witnesses.
And listen to what Elijah Washington had to tell us about what he went through when the storm bear down on him.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ELIJAH WASHINGTON, RESIDENT, ROLLING FORK, MISSISSIPPI: I got me a pillow, go jump into the bathtub and that's when the wind just -- the house went to shaking. And I said, yes, it's really serious this time. VALENCIA: Where were you because we're sitting on top of your house right now? Where were you?
WASHINGTON: Just in the bathroom. It's just right -- you know, the tub is over there, but I just, you know, got any tub and I had a little light with me and I can see the top coming in. And it was a few minutes, it was over.
VALENCIA: the roof coming down on you too?
WASHINGTON: Just crashing down and it just stopped. And I said, well, now I got to get out. And I turned around and looked and that was the outside of the house.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
VALENCIA: What really stands out to us aside from this devastation that we're standing in front of is the community all chipping in. Even those who lost their homes are coming out here to help out those who are in worse shape.
Earlier, we spoke to the vice mayor here who is also the older woman of this district. She lost her home, but she was out here passing out hot meals because she says this is the type of community that Rolling Fork is. About 2,000 residents here, a majority black community. Many people here we're told, didn't have insurance, one of the heartbreaking things here that underscores the devastation that they went through on Friday night, and just how much more they have further to go to pick up the pieces.
Nick Valencia, CNN, Rolling Fork, Mississippi.
HARRAK: Well, for the latest, let's go to CNN Meteorologist Karen Maginnis. Karen, millions now bracing for another round of severe weather.
KAREN MAGINNIS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes. And it looks like the bulk of that will be with the afternoon heating, but we could see one round during the morning hours on Sunday, then another milder round as we go towards the afternoon.
But then towards the evening, we're looking at this really kicking up into another threat of severe weather, primarily in an area from around Montgomery, Alabama. You may know Auburn University in this area, also the historic areas of Natchez and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, extending over towards the east central portion of Louisiana.
High winds and hail seemed to be the predominant items that we could see in the way of severe weather, but can't rule out the potential for an isolated, severe tornado.
Right now, we're just picking up a couple of little isolated cells just to the north of Montgomery, Alabama. It looks fairly benign. But there is a frontal system that is draped across this region and that is going to keep that return flow coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. And it looks like as we go later in the day on Sunday, all the way from the Carolinas into Central Alabama and we'll touch into Southern Mississippi. We might expect some of those thunderstorms to be erupting.
Now in some areas, the ground is absolutely saturated. Flooding is a threat, high winds, hail and the potential for a tornadic activity, but there could be something less in tornadoes in these big thunderstorms that actually could produce quite a bit of damage as well.
All right, here's what happened that we saw late in the day on Friday, EF-4 tornado began in Rolling Fork. This is in the Delta Region. It's the county seat of Sharkey County. There were thousands of people that lived there, but we got early reports when this happened right about 8:00 local time, that the city was pretty much destroyed.
That was not an exaggeration. It was phenomenal to see the damage that took place here. We actually have drone video. This -- you can get a wider view as to the volume and the stretch of the devastation across this region. There wasn't just a tornado watch. There wasn't just a tornado warning. There was a tornado emergency issued for this area. That is the most dire warning that you could see in regards to tornadic activity. It is devastating to see this.
I've seen a lot of tornado damage from a lot of places. This was so all encompassing. It was shocking. Preliminarily, an EF-4, for now, the state of Mississippi under a state of emergency. We will keep you updated at the top of the hour. Back to you, Laila.
HARRAK: Thank you so much, CNN's Karen Maginnis there for you.
Victor Gensini is a tornado expert and professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University, and he joins me now from Sugar Grove, Illinois. So good to have you with us.
Severe storms have wreaked havoc in the Southeast Mississippi, of course, bearing the brunt with the most damage and death are tornadoes in this part of the U.S. getting worse. What are you seeing?
VICTOR GENSINI, TORNADO EXPERT, PROFESSOR OF METEOROLOGY, NORTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY: Well, it's great to be with you, Laila. You know, if you looked over the last 40 to 50 years at the trends in tornadoes in the United States, really two things pop out. Number one, we're seeing fewer tornadoes in places like Oklahoma City and Dallas, the traditional areas where we think of tornado alley to be, and increasing in places like Tupelo and Memphis, in portions of the mid south, which have a very vulnerable population. And, unfortunately, we saw another one of these events last night killing over 20 people and potentially a tornadic path of over 100 miles.
So, it's been a busy 24 hours and my thoughts go out to all the people affected across Mississippi and Alabama last night.
HARRAK: Absolutely horrifying what they had to go through. What makes the southeast now so especially vulnerable?
GENSINI: Well, the vulnerability is really multifaceted issue. One of the biggest problems in the southeast is mobile homes and weak frame housing stock. We have a lot of very vulnerable people living, and you know if you're in that type of structure and even a weak tornado impacts you, you're very likely to be injured or killed in that situation.
In addition, tornadoes there happened at night. It's very hard to see tornadoes at night. We have a lot of trees that make it very difficult to spot these super cell storms that produce tornadoes. So, it's really you know, kind of a multitude of factors, but, you know, if you were doing research and you're thinking, wow, this is an area that is most likely to see tornado fatalities, you really do zone in on this area of the mid south, near Tupelo, near Memphis, that we witnessed on Friday evening.
HARRAK: Now in terms of construction, I want to pick up on that, should city planners, you know, especially in areas that are tornado prone, start building differently? Is it possible to tornado proof one's house?
GENSINI: Well, tornado proof would be pretty difficult. I think the biggest issue are, you know, these look at these local building codes right there set at local levels, and it's really the enforcement of those building codes. We have evidence of locations that have been hit multiple times by tornadoes, and you go back the second or third time and the structure was never built back to code.
So, it's an enforcement issue, but we really need to look at these mobile homes that they are big, big challenge. We the manufactured housing but anchoring of these types of structures has been shown time and time again to be very, very problematic. And if you're living in one of these structures when a situation like Friday evening happens, very, very likely to be injured.
HARRAK: Talk to us a little bit about your future projections. What do they reveal? What are you seeing in terms of the pattern of severe weather evolving in this country?
GENSINI: Yes, that's a great question. We need to use climate change models to do that. And those models are really course. They can't really tell us much about tornadoes. So, we have to use a different technique. We take that climate model data. We feed it into these high resolution weather-type of models.
Those models indicate that these areas that we're just talking about here in the mid south become even more vulnerable by the end of the century. When you turn up CO2, when you turn up some of these greenhouse gasses in the model, the storms become more intense, more frequent, and we also see this kind of increased in the Eastern United States frequency.
And, you know, I think the events of Friday evening really are kind of a poster child of what's to come when you start talking about tornado disasters. Our cities continue to grow larger. We have maybe the same or a few more of these types of events due to climate change, but the results are more of these disasters because of the comingling of climate change and the way we build.
HARRAK: Victor Gensini, thank you so much for valuable information. Thank you.
GENSINI: Thank you, Laila.
HARRAK: An animal shelter was also damaged as the tornado barreled through Mississippi, the Amory Humane Society says, luckily, none of the animals were hurt. They say there is damage to the structures and part of the roof was ripped right off. A staff member says some of the dog kennels were damaged in the dogs were, as you can imagine, terrified.
The organization says several rescue shelters from other parts of the states are helping them while they clean up and rebuild.
Ukraine is reacting to Russia's plan to place tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus possibly within months, a top adviser to President Zelenskyy, saying it will destabilize Belarus and turn the country into the Kremlin's, quote, nuclear hostage.
Belarus is the country from which Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine 13 months ago. Since then, the Russian military has become bogged down in a war of attrition. Despite the obvious threat, these weapons would pose to Ukraine and the rest of Europe.
Russian president Vladimir Putin defended the move in an interview with Russian media. Have a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT: The United States has done it for decades. They have placed their tactical nuclear weapons and their allied countries, NATO countries, in six countries, to be exact, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Turkey and Greece. And we had an agreement with Lukashenko, as allies do the same.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARRAK: A Russian paramilitary group is reportedly now in control of an industrial plant in the city of Bakhmut. Russian state media say the Wagner Group has taken the so called Izam (ph) plant on the north side of the city. CNN can't independently verify that. But the announcement came after Ukraine said it regained some ground in Bakhmut.
And as Ivan Watson reports, Russian rockets and artillery strikes are not showing any signs of slowing down.
IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The Ukrainian military says Russian forces have pounded more than 100 Ukrainian settlements in the 24-hour period with long range artillery and rockets and missiles, and one commander says some kind of a guided bomb, which Russian warplanes they can fly to the Russian-Ukrainian border without crossing it and then let these deadly weapons loose and then they glide towards their targets with deadly results. The Ukrainians say that at least 16 civilians were killed in these multiple attacks and dozens wounded.
In the meantime, on the ground, the fighting continues to rage around that flashpoint Southeastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Russian forces have tried now for more than seven months to try to capture this city, which has been largely destroyed, but the Ukrainians have succeeded in holding onto at least part of it.
And one Ukrainian officer claims, we cannot independently confirm this, that the Ukrainians have succeeded in pushing Russian forces back from the one remaining key road that the Ukrainians have to get in supplies and to evacuate wounded defenders.
The Ukrainian general, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, he says that in a briefing to the top military commander in the United Kingdom, he says that due to the dogged defense of the Ukrainians that the situation there has stabilized, but yet the fighting does continue to rage with one Ukrainian defender on the ground describing Russian artillery coming in around the clock despite claims and frequent complaints from the leader of the Russian mercenary group, Wagner, who is continuously publicly calling on the Russian military to send his forces more artillery rounds.
Ivan Watson, CNN, in Central Ukraine.
HARRAK: CNN's Barbie Nadeau joins us now from Rome with the latest. Barbie, what has the reaction been to President Putin's announcement that Russia plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus? BARBIE NADEAU, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes. You know, that's supposed to happen sometime by early July. This facility is supposed to be open here across Europe. It's very concerning because, of course, it changes the war theater, to some extent. It's also very concerning in the United States. We've had a statement from the U.S. saying that they're going to be watching the implications of what this means at all.
It also, of course, means that if they're going to be stationing these weapons in July, that the war is not going to be over by then, certainly, Laila.
HARRAK: Barbie, we understand that the head of the Atomic Agency will head to Ukraine in the coming days?
NADEAU: That's right. Rafael Grossi says he will be heading to -- that's the director general -- will be heading to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. That is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, which is also of great concern. They're looking at the precarious situation there. They've been there for about seven months. Various teams going in, this specialized team that's going in by the end of March, is going to be looking at the dangers that the Russian occupation of this power plant continues to pose over the whole of Europe. Laila?
HARRAK: Barbie Nadeau in Rome, thank you so much.
In a move likely to intensify an already volatile situation, U. S officials say a drone attack targeted a base housing U.S. troops in Syria. It is the fifth attack against U.S. troops in the country since Thursday. The U.S. blames the attacks on Iranian proxies and affiliated militias linked to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Well, Thursday, American forces launched retaliatory airstrikes against facilities linked to the Guard Corps and warned of more strikes if attacks on U.S. forces continued. In response, Iranian officials warned the U.S. of revenge if its forces are targeted in Syria.
Hope of finding more survivors phase following a deadly explosion at a Pennsylvania candy factory. Ahead, details on the challenges first responders are facing.
Back on the campaign trail for a third run, Donald Trump drummed a familiar beat on the outcome of the 2020 race and addressed some of the legal challenges he's facing. Details, next.
HARRAK: In Pennsylvania, at least three people are dead and four others unaccounted for following an explosion at a candy factory. Officials say they're conducting search operations but hopes of finding more survivors are fading. CNN's Danny Freeman has more.
DANNY FREEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This has been an absolutely devastating weekend for the residents of West Redding, Pennsylvania. We're about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia. And it's all because of that explosion that happened here Friday afternoon at a chocolate factory right in the center of town.
Now, first responders have been working tirelessly throughout the weekend to try and find survivors. But, again, that explosion was just so massive that it made it very challenging task.
Now, this was a multiagency operation. The governor of Pennsylvania was even here and he deployed state resources, like structural engineers and search and rescue specialists. And the challenging part here is there have been some moments of hope, in addition to the sadness overnight on Friday night, there was actually one survivor who was pulled from the rubble and taken to the hospital. But we spoke with a gentleman later on Saturday who emphasized that he fears his sister was still trapped inside of that wreckage.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm hoping that she found a spot that she could hide in. And, you know, it's been cold. It was cold last night and rainy today. And, you know, I ain't going to lied, I would be happy if she was just cold or wet, you know, hiding in a spot. I don't want to hear the worst. You know, they tell you to prepare for the worst, you know, but it's not something you want to prepare for.
FREEMAN: Now, on Saturday afternoon, we actually got a statement from R.M. Palmer. It read, everyone is devastated, and also continued in part, quote, we have lost close friends and colleagues and our thoughts and prayers are with the friends and family of all those who have been impacted. Of course, as we get more details on this story, we will bring them to you.
Danny freeman, CNN, West Redding, Pennsylvania.
HARRAK: Former U.S. President Donald Trump returned to the campaign trail Saturday afternoon with a rally in Waco, Texas, that evoked memories of his previous bids for the White House. His speech included the patently false claim that he actually won the 2020 presidential election, and it came as he faces legal investigations in several jurisdictions.
Our Kristen Holmes has more.
KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thousands and thousands of people showed up in Waco, Texas, for former President Donald Trump's first campaign rally of this season since he announced his third presidential bid. The former president talked at length about the numerous investigations he is facing, including that one in New York where there is a potential indictment.
[03:25:03] Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: The district attorney of New York under the auspices and direction of the department of injustice in Washington, D.C., was investigating me for something that is not a crime, not a misdemeanor, not an affair.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HOLMES: Now, in recent days, those investigations have seemed to escalate in addition to the investigation in New York, that potential indictment in that hush money probe, we've also seen former President Trump's personal defense attorney, Evan Corcoran, be made to appear before a federal grand jury in that Mar-a-Lago documents case. We also know that a federal judge has now ordered several of Trump's former aides, including Mark Meadows, his former chief of staff, to testify in the special counsel's investigation into January 6th.
But I will tell you, we spoke to dozens of people who were there to see Donald Trump and almost all of them told us that not only would an indictment not impact them at all but that they believed it would make Trump stronger. And this is something that we have heard from a number of Republicans. They believe that, at least in a contested primary, this kind of potential indictment will make him stronger. However, there are still a lot of questions about what this will mean in the long-term.
Kristen Holmes, Waco, Texas, CNN.
HARRAK: Just ahead, a top Israeli cabinet official calls for a pause to Benjamin Netanyahu's proposed judicial overhaul. Why he wants lawmakers to delay a vote on the bill.
HARRAK: Welcome back to our viewers in the United States and Canada. I'm Laila Harrak, and you're watching CNN Newsroom.
For the 12th straight week, thousands of Israelis took to the streets to voice their opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu's proposed overhaul of the nation's judicial system. The prime minister is not showing any signs of backing down so far. But Israel's defense minister is urging him to reconsider. Yoav Gallant broke ranks with Mr. Netanyahu on Saturday and called for a pause in the planned overhaul.
Let's get you more on these latest developments. I'm now joined by Hadas Gold in Jerusalem. Hadas, the defense minister also had a dire warning.
HADAS GOLD, CNN JERUSALEM CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Laila, the defense minister, coming out in what is likely the most significant political moment in this whole debate over this massive judicial overhaul, breaking ranks with his own prime minister. He's a member of Benjamin Netanyahu's party. He is, if not the most in one of the most senior members in the Israeli government, the defense minister saying that the legislation over this overhaul needs to be suspended. And one of the main reasons is because he is afraid of what this overhaul, the divisiveness around it, will do to Israel's national security and Israel's ability to defend itself against their adversaries.
This is partly because we have now been hearing from hundreds of military reservists, including the Elite Air Force Reservists, saying they either will not show up to training or that they will not even serve -- heed the call to serve because of these reforms, because they will believe -- they believe that if these reforms passed, which will give more power to the Israeli parliament over the Supreme Court, even to the point of being able to override certain Supreme Court decisions, they feel that they will no longer be serving a democracy, that they only want to serve a democracy.
And he is also warning this divisiveness is seeping into the active serving members, and he is fearful of what will this mean. So, he came out publicly on Saturday night, likely in defiance of the prime minister who, on Thursday, said that he was going to be pushing forward with this legislation, the defense minister saying it needs to be frozen. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
YOAV GALLANT, ISRAELI DEFENSE MINISTER: The events taking place in the issues and Israeli society do not skip the Israel defense forces, unprecedented feelings of anger, pain and disappointment have risen, and I see the source of our strength is eroding. As minister of defense of the state of Israel, I emphasize the growing rift in our society is penetrating the IDF and the security agencies. This poses a clear, immediate and tangible threat to the security of the state. I would not allow this.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLD: Now, pretty soon after that speech concluded, several other members of Netanyahu's own Likud Party actually came out in support of a freeze to the legislation. Now, keep in mind, these are people who say that reforms are needed, but they're saying that the way this is being done needs to be stopped, and everyone needs to kind of take a breath and calm down.
Already, though, there are calls for Netanyahu to fire the defense minister, notably by the minister of national security, Itamar Ben- Gvir. He's from one of the most right-wing parties in Israeli politics, saying that Netanyahu now needs to fire the defense minister for coming out against legislation, Laila?
HARRAK: Hadas Gold reporting, thank you so much.
Iran is trying to put on a show of unity after its brutal crackdown on anti-government protests. Demonstrations have been rattling the country since last September when a young woman died in the custody of the notorious morality police. And as Jomana Karadsheh reports, the protests are unlikely to entirely go away.
JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): This is an image Iran wants the world to see, crowds of faithful followers cheering their supreme leader, as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ushered in the Persian New Year, Nowruz, this week trying to turn the page on one of the most turbulent gears the clerical establishments ever faced, as he used the occasion to once again dismiss his people's uprising as riots in a foreign plot.
Painful scenes like this one played out across the country, grieving families marking this year's Nowruz remembering loved ones lost in the ruthless crackdown on protests.
At the grave of Mahsa Jina Amini, whose death six months ago in morality police custody sparked a national uprising, mourners sing an old Kurdish revolutionary song, we will not fall, our voices rise, we sacrifice for life and existence.
For many, this was a time for renewed daring demonstrations. The chance of women, life, freedom, echoed through the streets of Kurdish cities and were met with bullets that injured dozens, according to activists. The regime's repressive force may have pushed the countrywide protests underground, but it hasn't crushed the will of the people.
HOLLY DAGRES, SENIOR FELLOW, ATLANTIC COUNCIL: Iranians see every opportunity these days, every big event as an opportunity to protest. The clerical establishment is walking through a minefield, and it's -- any wrong step it takes will lead to this explosion of anger of people in the streets on mass.
KARADSHEH: With the regime unwilling to address the grievances of its people and an economy crumbling under western sanctions, analysts believe it's a matter of time before mass protests erupt again. Internationally, the regime is facing isolation, talks to revive the nuclear deal have stalled and the west continuing to confront Iranian proxies in the region has imposed more sanctions in the wake of the violent crackdown on protests and Iran's support for Russia's war in Ukraine.
But the regime may have found a new lifeline in its March 10th-China brokered agreement with longtime regional foe Saudi Arabia.
DAGRES: This is an achievement for regional diplomacy, at least defusing tensions for the time being. The truth is that by the Saudi Arabia recommencing ties with Iran, it is essentially giving the clerical establishment a lifeline and it is giving support to regime that protesters want isolated.
KARADSHEH: While the regime appears to be trying to put out some of the many fires in the region, those raging at home may be harder to suppress. Jomana Karadsheh, CNN, London.
HARRAK: After decades of diplomatic relations, Taiwan and Honduras have formally cut ties. The move came as the Honduran foreign ministry referred to Taiwan as, quote, an inalienable part of Chinese territory and said it recognized the existence of just one China. Right now, only 13 countries maintain official relations with Taiwan. In recent years, several nations have switched recognition to China in an effort to bolster trade and investment.
They're young, they're vulnerable and they're making a very perilous passage. We will take you to one of the world's most dangerous regions to learn why an increasing number of migrant children are making the journey.
HARRAK: A human smuggling investigation is underway after two people were found dead in a shipping container on a train in Southern Texas. Homeland Security officials say the men were from Honduras. They were among more than 30 people found on two separate train cars, including some who had to be airlifted to hospitals.
Police say they were tipped off by an emergency caller who said numerous migrants were, quote, suffocating inside of a train car. It's not clear where those migrants originally came from, but for thousands of others, a narrow strip of land separating South and Central America is a popular and very dangerous passage. As CNN's Rafael Romo shows us the number of migrants daring to cross the notorious Darien Gap is soaring, particularly the number of children.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RAFAEL ROMO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): This Venezuelan family of five is safe for now. Before arriving to a shelter in the Panamanian capital, they crossed the perilous Darien Gap, a jungle region connecting Columbia with Panama, to escape the financial crisis in their home country.
The mother is pregnant and all three of their children are younger than eight. The father, the only man in the group, says they thought they were doing fine in the beginning. Apart from cliffs and all that, we were kind of calm, he said, until we started seeing dead bodies. His son wanted to share with us some of the horrible things he saw. It was terrible, he said. We found six dead bodies.
The deadly dangers his family saw are nothing new at the Darien Gap, as many migrants have also reported seeing or being victim to homicides, robberies and sexual violence along the route.
What's new is the fact that more and more families with children seem to be risking it all for the American dream. According to UNICEF, nearly 46,000 migrants crossed into panama and the first two months of 2023. Of those, 9,656 were minors, a figure that is seven times higher than the one observed in the same period last year.
In 2022, more than 570 pregnant women, like Angrela Jimenez (ph), also enter Panamanian territory through the Darien Gap facing risks that are compounded by the fact that they're expecting.
I fell, she says. I'm not kidding you. I felt like four times and rolled down hills.
The Darien Gap has caught the attention of U.S. immigration authorities.
GLORIA CHAVEZ, U.S. CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION: I wanted to be there. I wanted to be and to see the Colombian and Panamanian border, because we had seen that and heard that there was a lot of different types of populations coming through there, coming through the Darien Jungle up to the southern border of Mexico and into the United States.
ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: This is a challenge that we have to solve together.
ROMO: Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken led a delegation to panama to promote joint solutions to a common problem.
BLINKEN: helping stabilize and strengthen communities that are hosting migrants and refugees, creating more legal pathways to reinforce safe, orderly and humane migration, dealing with the root causes of regular migration.
ROMO: Back at the shelter in Panama City, children do arts and crafts to calm their nerves after the terrifying ordeal. Officials say more than 1,000 unaccompanied minors crossed the Darien Gap last year and fear that figure maybe even larger in 2023.
Rafael Romo, CNN, Atlanta.
HARRAK: Idaho has become the latest U.S. state to ban transgender students from using public school bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. The governor signed the measure this week and it takes effect July 1st. It says students can only use bathrooms that align with the gender assigned at their birth. The rule applies to locker rooms, showers and other facilities, but not single occupancy restrooms. Arkansas and Iowa passed similar laws this year.
Meanwhile, the World Athletics has banned many transgender women from competing in female track and field events. Starting this week, it will prohibit transgender women who have gone through what the W.A. male puberty. Some LGBTQ rights groups have criticized the decision as discriminatory.
The organization stonewalled, expressed disappointment, saying World Athletics has no specific evidence to justify the ban.
Christine Brennan is a CNN Sports Analyst and award-winning Sports Columnist for USA Today, and she joins me now from Washington, D.C. So much to unpack here, Christine, good to have you with us.
What's the thinking behind this ban?
CHRISTINE BRENNAN, CNN SPORTS ANALYST: The thinking, Laila, is that what World Athletics Track and Field governing body is saying as the Swimming Federation said last year is that if you've gone through male puberty, you cannot compete, and the women's events at the Olympics or the world championships. That's basically what this says.
And this is a conversation, as you know, and as so many know, that people are having and neighborhoods and in sporting events and, of course, at governing body level of, you know, around the world, and it's not something that is easy to figure out and it's balancing, of course, transgender rights with how we view women's sports. And it's something that may well take decades to decide, and even 50 years from now, people still might be trying to figure it out.
But we have now seen two of the biggest sports in the Olympic world, swimming last year, track and field this week, saying that if you've gone through male puberty, you cannot compete in women's events. It's a significant development. Obviously, transgender rights advocates are not happy, those who want to, quote/unquote, protect women's sports are happy.
But it's Sebastian Coe, who is the president of World Athletics, said, and he, of course, an Olympic gold medalist, ran the London Olympics in 2012, he knows the Olympic movement very well, he said this is something they're going to continue to study and continue to look at with the science and medicine and try to figure out what's next. So, this may not be the last word on a --
HARRAK: This may not be the last word, Christine, but talk to us about the impact that this will have on athletes that this ban targets.
BRENNAN: Right now, there are no athletes that we know of that are at the highest level who would be, we could absolutely say, Laila, that person is now they cannot be at the Olympics in Paris, say. We don't know of anyone at that level.
They are obviously dealing with an issue that is out there at the high school level in the United States. It's certainly have been at college level with Leah Thomas, the swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania last year, a very controversial story that resonated around the United States last year. And so I think they're looking at this is okay. This is something that we have to deal with, and that's what these governing bodies have decided.
HARRAK: But it's striking, isn't it, Christine. I mean, it's not an issue that they're dealing with yet somehow, preemptively, they wanted to introduce this ban. Do trans women have advantages in sport? What do we know about that? BRENNAN: Well, if we have about ten hours, I think we could start to work on that, and I'm not being flip (ph) at all. What I'm saying is it is something that that scientists disagree on. There are many people out there who say, yes, that they do. Once you've gone through male puberty, you have testosterone, your body is built in a certain way that makes it more advantageous when you are competing against cisgender women. And there are others who say that the science is not there yet.
I think we're going to see a lot more studies over the next few years as this issue continues to grow. It's something that resonates and is important to so many people around the world in sports and not in sports. There are also the very hateful decisions being made at the state level in the United States that complicate this. I don't see that decision here as being in the mode of, say, the governors from Florida or Texas and some of the things that are happening in the U.S. states in the us, but I do think it's all part of that same conversation, which gets so emotional. People can just calm down and have conversations somewhere in the middle. We may well come up with an answer, but I think it's going to take quite a while.
HARRAK: Right, because it does remain a so-called wedge issue. And I'm just wondering in terms of the World Athletics Council. What kind of message is it sending to young, talented trans people who aspired to becoming professional athletes?
BRENNAN: That certainly is a problem. I mean -- and we know, of course, Laila, the issues, the emotional issues, the mental health issues that surround something as difficult as deciding that you are going to transition. And, you know, obviously, I'm for trans rights, I'm sure you are, many people watching and understand those issues are immense. We can only imagine how hard that must be.
So then if you get this news and you're aspiring to go to the Olympics as a trans woman, this is not involving trans man, only trans women, that then how devastating this could be. That is certainly a calculation that World Athletics, I'm sure talked, I'm sure that Sebastian Coe did, as knowing him as I do, and they are making decisions what they believe is for the best for their sport.
Christine Brennan, always good to have you with us, thank you so much.
BRENNAN: Laila, thank you.
HARRAK: A puzzle piece of Ancient Greek history is back in place. We'll tell you about the return of invaluable artifacts to Greece hundreds of years after they were taken.
HARRAK: The Vatican has returned three ancient artifacts to Greece after holding on to them for centuries. The artworks are now on display in Athens and they're helping historians pieced together the puzzles of the past. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
HARRAK (voice over): A homecoming centuries in the making, three fragments of sculptures that once resided in the Parthenon are now back in their ancestral home, Greece. The Vatican returning the artworks depicting the head of a boy, part of a horse and a bearded man, which were held in its papal collection.
The Catholic Church calling it a donation to the Greek Orthodox Church, to avoid weighing in on restitution battles facing many international museums to return artifacts to their countries of origin.
BISHOP BRIAN FARRELL, VATICAN SECRETARY OF PROMOTING CHRISTIAN UNITY: This gesture here and seeing the reaction of so many people greet people to this. This is a small part of the immense treasure. It would be wonderful if everything could come together.
HARRAK: The pieces now displayed in the Acropolis Museum in view of the Parthenon, where the 2,500-year-old marbles once came from, and Greece says there's plenty of room for other treasures to make their way home.
LINA MENDONI, GREEK CULTURE MINISTER: The ceremony completes the exceptionally generous gesture by Pope Francis and shows the road we could follow, that everyone could follow in order for the unity of the Parthenon to be restored.
HARRAK: One of the most famous collections of Parthenon sculptures is the Elgin Marbles housed in the British Museum in London. The statues and panels were removed from the temple in the early 19th century, when Greece was under ottoman rule by a British diplomat named Lord Elgin, who later sold them to the British government. So, the British Museum says it legally acquired the marbles. Greece wants them back.
The British Museum is prevented by U.K. law from permanently returning the artworks to Greece. But there have been talks between the two countries to settle the custody dispute with some reports of progress. But for now, there are three not so new additions to the Acropolis Museum. Greece hopes many more will follow.
HARRAK (on camera): I'm Laila Harrak. Kim Brunhuber picks up our coverage after a quick break, and I'll see you tomorrow.