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Violence Surges in Ecuador; Body of Missing 11-Year-Old Found in Texas; L.A.'s Plan for the Homeless. Aired 8:30-9a ET

Aired February 21, 2024 - 08:30   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: It is a busy Wednesday morning. Here are "5 things" to know.

The Supreme Court could respond soon to Donald Trump's emergency request in the federal election subversion case. He is appealing a lower court decision that denied his claim of absolute presidential immunity.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN ANCHOR: Georgia Republican Governor Brian Kemp tells CNN that special counsel Jack Smith interviewed him about the federal election subversion case. Trump pressured Kemp to help overturn President Biden's 2020 win in the state. Kemp says he told Smith he follows the law and the Constitution.

HARLOW: The mother of Alexei Navalny is suing to get access to her son's body after he died in a Russian prison. She released a video yesterday asking Vladimir Putin to, quote, "let me see my son."

MATTINGLY: Police in Kansas City say they have charged two men with second-degree murder in the shooting at the Chiefs' Super Bowl parade last week. Local DJ Lisa Lopez-Galvan was killed and more than 20 other people were injured.

HARLOW: Today, jury selection begins in a trial over the shooting death on the set of the movie "Rust." Prosecutors say armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Read handled the gun that was held by Alec Baldwin when it fired the shot that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins.

More on these stories all day right here on CNN, Don't forget to download the "5 Things" podcast every morning.

Well, right now, Ecuador is embroiled in violence as gangs and terror groups prompt chaos nationwide. CNN got a rare inside look at how the country's prisons serve not as punishment but as command centers.

MATTINGLY: For example, take a look at this cell, which held one of Ecuador's most notorious gang leaders. It has, yes, the queen size bed, a mini fridge, even a courtyard. So, why did he escape?

Here's CNN's David Culver.


DAVID CULVER, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): It's as though they're stepping into a war zone. Ecuador's military and national police trail an armored vehicle in a raid of one of the country's 35 prisons. Inside, prisoners stripped down, hands tied. Scenes like this have played out across Ecuador over the past few weeks. The armed forces making a very public show of force, attempting to reinstate order within in their own prisons.

It's part of Ecuador's effort to neutralize terror groups and weed out gangs, which have unleashed chaos nationwide, from a live TV studio armed takeover, to random shootings in the streets.

This most recent surge in violence sparked by the suspected escape of this man, Jose Adolfo Macias, known as "Fito." On January 7th, officials reported that while serving a 34-year sentence for murder and drug trafficking, the notorious gang leader vanished from this prison in Guayaquil. A drone's view allows us to grasp the scale of this complex. It is sprawling.

CULVER: Not really much of a prison uniform. They're all kind of in their own clothes.

CULVER (voice over): Officials tell us it's made up of five different prisons. Through military in prison sources we get a sense of the layout. We learned the women are kept here. These buildings house the men and they range from minimum to medium security. And over here, maximum security, known as "La Roca," or the rock.


With a military escort, we go past the first of three perimeters. Any farther, were told, to dangerous, even with armed soldiers. We're told inmates are separated based on gang affiliation and are essentially self-ruled.

CULVER: And you can see behind one of these gates folks kind of moving comfortably and casually from cell to cell. It's kind of an indoor/outdoor complex.

CULVER (voice over): CNN obtaining these videos from inside. By prison standards, they reveal a life of luxury for Fito, drug kingpin. The images captured last year by members of Ecuador's military. They appear to show Fito's cell, messy but complete with home comforts, a mini fridge, a queen bed, upscale shower fittings, artwork featuring an image of Fito himself with guns and cash.

He lives like a king, you can hear one of the soldiers say in this video obtained by CNN and verified by Ecuador's military.

Outside, his own courtyard and a half dozen fighting roosters believed to be his. A military source tells us Fito had fresh fish important for his meals, and somehow even managed to shoot a music video from within the prison walls.

Equavisa (ph) showing these images of Fito's 42nd birthday in 2022. The prisoners reportedly enjoyed cake, music, and drinks. The night capped off with fireworks.

He had more power outlets than a Marriott hotel room, Ecuador's president, Daniel Noboa, said late last year. So, why escape?

Ecuadorian security experts believe that Fito was tipped off that he was going to be transferred in the same complex back to "the rock," maximum security. Fito spent a few weeks in "the rock" last year. Moving him there involved an estimated 4,000 police and soldiers. His sudden disappearance suggesting he wasn't ready to leave the comfort of his cell.

The government's focus now is to reassert control within, but it won't be easy. Prison raids have turned up everything from laptops to guns.

Noboa also announcing the construction of new prisons designed by the same company behind El Salvador's notorious mega prisons, where thousands of suspected gang members are locked up.

Back outside of the prison in Guayaquil --

CULVER: You can hear there's church services going on, some sort of religious ceremony, loudspeakers.

CULVER (voice over): Soldiers and police stand guard on the perimeter, knowing that its often the gangs who still dictate what happens on the inside.

David Culver, CNN, Guayaquil, Ecuador.

HARLOW: Remarkable.

MATTINGLY: Just the latest of remarkable pieces that David's done out of Ecuador. Our thanks to David Culver for another great piece.


MATTINGLY: Well, we're getting new information about an 11-year-old girl found dead after she missed the bus to school. Police say they've arrested the prime suspect and reveal his lengthy criminal record. We'll have more, next.



MATTINGLY: Well, there's a tragic end to the case of the missing girl in Texas. Authorities say they've recovered the remains of 11-year-old Audrii Cunningham, who vanished on Thursday while on her way to school near Houston.

HARLOW: And the Polk County district attorney's office is charging the girl's neighbor, Don Steven McDougal, who was arrested on Friday on unrelated charges. McDougal says he's not guilty. He says he's done nothing wrong.

With us now, CNN chief law enforcement and intelligence analyst John Miller.

I do not have to tell you this is every parent's worst nightmare. This is someone who lived on their property, that they trusted. Trusted so much that he could bring her to the bus stop.

Take us into the hours, days of searching for her, from when the sheriff found out she was missing to this.

JOHN MILLER, CNN CHIEF LAW ENFORCEMENT AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: Well, in this case, the Polk County sheriff did what needed to be done, which is he realized going in, we know what to do, but we're going to need a lot of help. He called in the Texas Rangers, the Texas Department of Public Safety, but he also called in the FBI. And the FBI brings in the CARD team. That's the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team. This is almost like something out of a TV show. It's five seasoned agents who have worked child abduction cases before. It's a polygraph expert. It's a member of the CAST team, which is the cellular phone tracking people who can create tracking and maps depending on, you know, if they have a target, a couple of analysts to put all the information together into a computer and leads and mapping.

Why? Because we all know from these cases that the first 24 hours is so critical. We know in child abduction cases that end with the death of the child, 76 percent of those happen within the first three hours, 89 percent happen within the first 24 hours. So, literally, when you go into that case, it's a race against time. So, he brought in all kinds of resources, which is how they identified the suspect quickly, which is how they were able to resolve it quickly.

But again, in this case, in the race against time, they probably didn't have much even when they started.

MATTINGLY: The suspect in this case, and Poppy points out the proximity, he also had a pretty lengthy rap sheet I believe.


MATTINGLY: What do we know about him?

MILLER: So, he is a bit of a drifter around Texas because when you read his rap sheet, it goes from county to county, town to town. It's a lot of low-end stuff, DUIs, drug possession, resisting arrest, assault. But there is a telling case on there where he is accused of sexual exploitation of a child. That would have made him a registered sex offender, that particular charge, but the court records indicate it was downgraded to a guilty plea of child enticement.

And this goes back several years. So, he literally wasn't on the radar in that regard. And what we learned from these cases again is, we think, as parents, as -- as -- as people that the child abductor is going to be this bogey man. He's some drifter who came from out of the neighborhood and saw a child and snatched them up. We keep learning over and over again that the vast majority of child abduction cases involve somebody who knows the house, who knows the family, who's familiar with the children, either a friend or a casual acquaintance, a neighbor, a neighbor's teenage child.

We think back to, you know, our viewers, you guys remember this, Charlotte Sena, October, not that long ago, upstate New York.




MILLER: You know, that's a miracle case where --

HARLOW: They found her.

MILLER: They found her. And they found her alive, you know, in a trailer of someone who, you know, found her in a park. So, you know, these things -- these things are every parent's nightmare. And what can you do about that? It's, you know, you can try two things, which is, one, know the people around you who might have access to your children. Now, most of us don't have the resources to do an extensive background check. The other thing is to tell your child, don't go with anybody who says to come with me unless -- even if you know them, unless you ask us first. But that's hard for kids.

HARLOW: But even with this downgrade, it's not clear that anything would have shown up to that extent on the background check.

MILLER: No, that's right.

HARLOW: John, thanks for the reporting.

MILLER: Thanks.

HARLOW: The FAA is going to investigate after a United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Boston was forced to divert to Denver due to a damaged wing. Take a look at this. This is pretty shocking video. It shows the plane flying with damage to the front of the weighing. One hundred and sixty-five passengers were onboard the Boeing 757-200, this was on Monday, when the right wing appeared to start shredding. United says the plane safely made that emergency landing nearly 2,000 miles from its planned destination. Another plane carried those passengers on to Boston.

MATTINGLY: Well, the government says the number of people homeless hit a record high last year. We're going to go to L.A., where one simple solution may help people rebuild their lives. That's next.



HARLOW: Welcome back.

This morning we're taking a much closer look at homelessness in the United States as it reaches a level not seen in the modern era. California is home to 12 percent of the country's population. But the newest federal survey shows it is also home to 28 percent of the people who are unhoused in America.

MATTINGLY: Jake Tapper takes a closer look in his new series, "Homeless in America."


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR (voice over): This is the sound of someone's entire life essentially being thrown in the trash. In the middle of recent record-breaking rain in Los Angeles, the city is today clearing an encampment for unhoused people.

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass campaigned on fixing the city's homeless crisis. This is theoretically part of that fix.

MAYOR KAREN BASS (D), LOS ANGELES: This is exactly why I ran for mayor. This is the reason why.

TAPPER (voice over): Mayor Bass took me to see the cleanup firsthand, getting people out of tents and onto buses and into temporary housing. They leave behind anything they cannot carry.

JAMES, MOVING INTO TEMPORARY HOUSING: I was recently stabbed about two weeks ago. This is like a Godsend right now, like, getting indoors and being away from this.

TAPPER (voice over): Inside Safe is the name of Mayor Bass' flagship program to tear down these encampments and being L.A.'s unhoused indoors.

TAPPER: So, when I spoke to you about a year ago, you talked about your goal for homelessness and the end of homelessness in Los Angeles by the end of your first term.

BASS: Well, I think that progress is going well. We destroyed the myth that people do not want to leave the tents, people don't want to leave the cars and their RVs. We've had the opposite problem. We have more people willing to leave than we have rooms for.

TAPPER (voice over): In a remarkable new study, researchers at the University of California San Francisco surveyed thousands of the homeless in California. Nearly 90 percent of participants said high housing costs were a barrier to their moving into permanent housing. And the majority of those surveyed did want to get off the streets.

JAMES: There are people on the street that don't want to be housed, but most of them do, you know? It's just finding the right housing for them and the right situation.

TAPPER (voice over): Major factors to finding housing are high rents and low income. Then, of course, there's also discrimination and bad credit. Some people don't even have ID. Some have been evicted before. Many are dealing with addiction or struggling with physical or mental health problems.

BASS: Affordability is definitely the issue, but the shredding of the social safety net over years has resulted in this situation that we have here. So, we have to repair that while we repair the human beings that suffer because of it.

TAPPER (voice over): The number of people experiencing homelessness in a single night went up 12 percent in the United States in 2023, in part because Covid programs preventing evictions and housing losses came to an end. A quarter of those people were unhoused for the first time in their lives.

TAPPER: How many people fell into homelessness during Covid?

BASS: Before Covid there were probably about 20,000 or 30,000 people. Now it's 46,000.

TAPPER (voice over): Today, this man, Mark, the father of four, is getting out of his tent and into temporary housing nearby.

MARK, MOVING INTO TEMPORARY HOUSING: I'm going to get a house to do better for myself and get back in my kids' life.

TAPPER: What do you want people out there watching to know about the unhoused community?

MARK: We're not all drug addicts. We're not all thieves. We're not all people trying to hurt and steal from you. You see a person down, I think, as a human being, it would be a great thing to turn around and a bottle of water, maybe a blanket, something. You could save their life.

TAPPER (voice over): Mark's new housing is in these former shipping containers used to build interim housing quickly. Since the launch of Inside Safe, more than 2,000 people have moved into interim housing, but only 329 have moved into permanent housing.

Since Mayor Bass took office, the program has cost L.A. more than $53 million, but the city argues it was well spent and points out the fire department spent nearly $125 million on incidents involving unhoused people last year.

TAPPER: There was a misunderstanding about homelessness in this country.

BASS: Exactly.

TAPPER: A lot of people think it's just people with psychological problems or just people with addiction.

BASS: We have about 9,000 children who are homeless in Los Angeles.


Some of them are in and out of schools. Some of them attend school. But many are living in cars and RVs. One of the fastest-growing sectors of the unhoused population are senior citizens, people in their 60s and 70s. They get priced out of the market and they wind up unhouse. TAPPER (voice over): Even so, California is trying to tackle mental health and substance abuse by implementing Care Courts to push those who need it off the streets and into treatment.

BASS: And this is a controversial opinion. I don't think it's OK to be profoundly mentally ill walking in and out of traffic and be allowed to be there. I think some people might need to be hospitalized and they might need to be hospitalized against their will. And I think it is inhumane to allow people to die on the streets.

TAPPER: The short-term solution, get people out of the tents, off the street, out of the cars, into these containers. But this isn't a long- term solution for the problem, right?

BASS: No, but let me just tell you what short-term is. I think short- term is about a year-and-a-half. And I say that because it takes a while to build housing. Unfortunately, the policy de facto had been, you stay on the street while we build something. I think that is completely unacceptable. So, what is the solution? Just putting somebody in a house is not enough. There needs to be health care and other social services support and then they need to go into permanent housing.

TAPPER (voice over): Jake Tapper, CNN, Los Angeles.

MATTINGLY: Our thanks to Jake for that. An important piece in an important series I think it's an important (ph) one to do.

HARLOW: So glad he's doing that.

MATTINGLY: "CNN NEWS CENTRAL" starts after this break. That's it for us. Have a good one.