This story is part of our series “Heel to Toe,” stories about Texans and their boots. Picking a pair of cowboy or cowgirl boots takes time. It’s not a decision Texans make lightly because we understand that it’s a commitment.
NPR’s John Burnett, a reporter who covers the Southwest and the borderlands, says he was ready to make a special investment in a unique pair of boots.
“I’ve always wanted a pair of custom-made boots – a pair of black ostrich skin boots,” Burnett says.
But Burnett soon found that his dream boots would run him between $1,200 and $1,500. So he decided to research bootmakers in Mexico and found one in Nuevo Laredo.
“I found his shop,” Burnett says. “It’s this disheveled shop and there were pieces of leather falling off of shelves and it smelled like shoe polish.”
As he watched the bootmaker put the finishing touches on his new footwear, “a very strange young man” walks into the store.
“He had snake heads attached just behind the toes,” Burnett says. “They were bright yellow.”
Burnett took note of the man’s demeanor and his almost lifeless eyes. Then he offered the man a beer.
“He just kind of gave me a cold look,” Burnett says.
The man wanted his pointy-toed cowboy boots altered to a square toe style, and the bootmaker tried to explain that it would be difficult and costly. The bootmaker then looked over at Burnett, and his expression told the reporter all he needed to know:
“‘This is one of the guys who run the city. Be cool and don’t mess with him, and we’re all going to be fine,'” Burnett says.
Burnett learned that he was in the presence of a narco – a junior-level commander of the most powerful Mexican drug cartel, the Zetas.
“Of course, if you’re a narco on the border, what are the things you want?” Burnett says. “You want a telenovela girlfriend, you want a big-ass truck … and you want a really nice pair of boots.”
Burnett calls his experience “a lesson of some of the surreal life on the border.”
Written by Louise Rodriguez.