The Story Of Pacho Herrera, The Cartel Boss Who Took On Pablo Escobar And Lived To Tell The Tale

Published October 10, 2021
Updated November 11, 2021

Made famous as the openly gay drug lord depicted in "Narcos," the real-life Hélmer "Pacho" Herrera took the Cali Cartel to unparalleled heights of power and wealth in the 1980s.

With the death of Pablo Escobar in the second season of Netflix’s Narcos, the show had to look for a new set of characters to fill out the series. Luckily, the writers had a made-to-fit character in the flashy, brutal, and openly gay Pacho Herrera.

In the show, Hélmer “Pacho” Herrera combines the supreme self-confidence it takes to be openly gay in a world of ruthless gangsters along with a casual approach to extreme violence, embodied in a scene where he has a rival ripped apart by motorcycles. Through it all, he indulges in an extravagant lifestyle, enjoying all the finest things that drug money can buy.

Pacho Herrera

Public DomainMugshot of Cali Cartel boss Pacho Herrera

But the real-life Pacho Herrera lived a life that was even more bold and daring than his fictional counterpart.

As violent as he was stylish, Herrera ruled the Cali Cartel in the 1980s and early ’90s like no other kingpin before him and helped turn it into the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world. Along the way, he survived multiple hit squads, helped take down Pablo Escobar, built himself a personal 14-story compound, and turned his cartel into an $8 billion per year powerhouse.

This is the full story of Pacho Herrera that Narcos only hinted at.

How Pacho Herrera Made His Name With The Cali Cartel

Little is known about Pacho Herrera’s early life. He was born Francisco Hélmer Herrera Buitrago and grew up near the city of Palmira in Colombia. After high school, he moved to New York City, where he worked as a jeweler before realizing he could make more money selling cocaine.

Hélmer Herrera was picked up by New York City police in 1975 on charges of selling a small amount of cocaine. Four years later, he was arrested again on the same charge. But both times he was eventually released.

Herrera first became a major player in the drug trade in 1983, when he moved back to Colombia and made contact with the Cali Cartel. Using the cartel’s resources and his own connections in the U.S., Herrera began moving huge amounts of cocaine into New York.

With the money he made, Herrera diversified, establishing processing sites in the remote jungles of Peru and Bolivia where workers readied the cocaine he sold back in the United States.

Within a few years, Pacho Herrera was helping to run the Cali Cartel. But soon, the cartel would run up against another powerful drug ring in Colombia.

Pacho Herrera Goes To War Against Pablo Escobar

Pablo Escobar

Wikimedia CommonsPablo Escobar

In the late 1980s, two low-level cocaine traffickers got into a fight over a woman they were both involved with in New York City. A gun battle erupted, leaving several people dead.

The shooter ran to Pacho Herrera for protection. The men he had just killed were, after all, allies of one the most feared drug lords in the world: Pablo Escobar.

When Escobar sent out word that he wanted the shooter’s head, Herrera refused.

“Then this is war,” Escobar replied, “And I’m going to kill every one of you sons of b*tches.”

Escobar was right, and by 1990, the Cali and Medellin cartels were in the middle of an all-out war.

In 1988, an explosion destroyed an apartment building in Colombia owned by Escobar. Escobar suspected Herrera was behind it. So, in 1990, Escobar had a squad of killers dressed as policemen open fire on a crowd in which Herrera was sitting while watching a soccer game. They killed 18 people, but not Herrera. And in 1991, a group of gunmen ambushed Herrera at a resort, leaving several people dead.

The war only ended because the cartels decided they had a mutual enemy, the Colombian government. Making peace, the cartels worked together to coerce the government into amending the constitution to outlaw extradition to the United States through a series of killings.

With extradition defeated, the cartels went back at each other’s throats. Though it was never proven, many suspected that Herrera was heavily involved in financing Los Pepes, a paramilitary death squad that began attacking Escobar’s operations.

Thanks to the efforts of the Colombian government and the DEA, as well as the attacks from Los Pepes, Escobar found himself on the losing end of the war. In 1993, he was killed in a shootout with the authorities.

With Escobar dead, the Cali Cartel cornered the market on cocaine trafficking, at one point supplying 80 percent of all cocaine in the world. By 1993, the cartel was pulling in $8 billion a year.

Herrera used his money to fund a lavish lifestyle, living in a mansion with all-white marble floors and white leather furniture. Clearly, he had a certain sense of style.

That’s something the real Pacho Herrera had in common with the way he’s portrayed in Narcos. But how true to life is the show?

How The Real-Life Herrera Compares With His Portrayal On Narcos

Pacho Herrera In Narcos

NetflixPacho Herrera as depicted on Narcos.

Narcos has always been a blend of truth and fiction. According to showrunner Eric Newman, the split between the two is “about 50-50.”

In real life, Pacho Herrera was a calculating criminal with a gift for running an illegal trafficking operation. He developed one of the most sophisticated and profitable money-laundering operations in the Cali Cartel, according to the DEA.

As to his sexuality, there is some dispute over the matter. According to a journalist who wrote a book about the cartel, William Rempel, he was openly gay. Other writers have made similar claims. But because he was so careful about keeping his identity and operations secret, it’s hard to say for sure.

Meanwhile, his death is portrayed more or less accurately on the show.

Herrera surrendered to police after a massive manhunt in 1996. He was the last of the Cali Cartel leaders to be arrested.

In prison, he began spending much of his time playing soccer. In 1998, a man posing as a lawyer approached him during a break in a soccer game and shot him multiple times in the head and stomach. The shooter’s exact motives remain uncertain, but it’s safe to say that Pacho Herrera made plenty of enemies in his time as a drug lord.

As the narrator says on the show, “Vendettas in the drug game never end.”

After learning about Pacho Herrera, read about fellow Narcos subject Felix Gallardo. Then, learn the story of drug smuggler George Jung, the man who inspired the movie Blow.

Wyatt Redd
A graduate of Belmont University with a Bachelor's in History and American University with a Master's in journalism, Wyatt Redd is a writer from Nashville, Tennessee who has worked with VOA and global news agency AFP.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Redd, Wyatt. "The Story Of Pacho Herrera, The Cartel Boss Who Took On Pablo Escobar And Lived To Tell The Tale.", October 10, 2021, Accessed June 19, 2024.