"The Zetas, unlike other cartels that have centralized commands, operate with franchises. They have arrangements with local and regional networks," said Rodolfo Casillas, an immigration expert at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, a hemispheric research and teaching academy with a branch in Mexico City.
The U.S. official concurred: "The upper echelon of the Zetas tell the middle echelon: 'These are the crimes that you can do with our authorization to generate revenue for the organization.' " Midlevel crime bosses then coordinate criminal activity in their assigned regions.
Migrants who survive abduction say the gunmen operate with a swagger.
"The kidnappers say they are with Los Zetas, they are really well armed and that the authorities are in cahoots with them," said the Rev. Heyman Vazquez Medina, a priest who runs a local shelter and has debriefed hundreds of migrants.
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