In Narcos, Pacho Herrera is an openly gay Cali Cartel drug lord who survives via brutality. But how closely does that match up to the truth?
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 homosexual Pacho Herrera.
In the show, Herrera combines the sort of supreme self-confidence it takes to be openly gay in a world of ruthless gangsters 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 by.
But how closely does the show’s Pacho Herrera match the real one?
The Cali Cartel
Little is known about Pacho Herrera’s early life. He 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.
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
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 $7 billion a year.
Herrera used the 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?
What Does Narcos Get Right?
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.
And his death (above) 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.”