There were a lot of Cali cartel characters to follow in Narcos Season 3, but “Pacho” Herrera was one of the most interesting people in the Netflix series. Fans of the character will be happy to learn that he shows up again in season two of Narcos: Mexico, which streamed in February 2020.
Herrera drew attention during the Cali Cartel season, in part, because he is a rare gay character in the Narcos show and on Netflix. (Warning: Plot spoilers ahead).
The series showed Herrera openly discussing his sexuality and kissing a male character on the dance floor (before ordering the draw-and-quartering of a man by motorcycle.) They are also shown in an ultimately grisly final embrace. He explains to a Mexican drug lord that his loyalty to the other Cali godfathers stems in part from their acceptance of his sexuality after his father disowned him.
In Narcos: Mexico, he shows up, silk shirt clad, at a party held by Mexican cartel leader Felix Gallardo, refuses to pay him the $200 million Felix says Cali owes him, and chastises him for the disastrous decision to murder and torture an U.S. DEA agent, Kiki camarena. It was, Herrera warns, bad for business. Gallardo then promises a cohort that he will own Cali.
Is Pacho Herrera a real character? How accurate was the portrayal? Narcos is a series that draws from real events but deviates from them for dramatic purposes at times.
Complex.com reports that the real life Helmer “Pacho” Herrera was “was out, proud and oversaw the group’s most gruesome deaths,” basing that account on the reporting of investigative journalist William Rempel, who wrote the book, At the Devil’s Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel.
On his website, Rempel writes of Herrera, “He was the youngest and most physically fit of the four godfathers, unmarried, and openly homosexual. He also fit certain gay stereotypes. He was noted for a wardrobe of fashionable sportswear and for stylishly decorated homes. Pacho had the empathetic manner of a priest, but he also ran the cartel’s most brutal wing of hired guns (called sicarios). His greatest passion, however, was soccer. He built professional-quality fields with stadium lighting for his own personal use.”
The real Cali cartel was as bad as it is depicted in the Narcos series. The CIA even reportedly compared the cartel to the KGB, and Cali controlled 80% of the world’s cocaine market at one point. For a time, the real Herrera was the cartel’s guy in New York. “The Cali Cartel began targeting American cities by the dozen. Within weeks, the Cartel had sent Helmer ‘Pacho’ Herrera to New York city to establish a formal distribution centre, from which he controlled numerous newly formed ‘cells’,” reports The Gentleman’s Journal. However, as the series also shows, the drug trade shifted to the U.S. Mexican border.
In 1995, The New York Times reported on Pacho’s lavish lifestyle and life on the run, writing, “Until last month, Helmer Herrera Buitrago could relax in his penthouse bathtub while monitoring on closed circuit television who was coming and going from his private 14-story office and residential tower here. To cruise around town, he could choose from a fleet of 70 cars, including a bullet-proofed Mazda equipped with louvers to allow his bodyguards to fire machine pistols at pursuers. But hard times have fallen on this slender, mustachioed Colombian, whose personal empire allegedly includes much of the cocaine trade in New York and New Jersey.”
The hard times? The closing net of law enforcement.
Actor Alberto Ammann has played “Pacho since the show’s first season but who didn’t really get to explore his sexuality until now as his part had been smaller in the previous years that concentrated on the take-down of Medellin drug lord, Pablo Escobar,” reports Complex. That has led to buzz on social media from some fans surprised to learn about the character’s sexuality.
According to Complex, “Pacho may have been a blood-thirsty monster and the coming-out story he reflects upon during this season ain’t exactly rosy, but Narcos’ depiction of him is an important part of LGBTQ representation on TV.”
CNN also pointed to the character, writing, “The array of characters is particularly strong, with Alberto Ammann as an openly gay leader of the cartel, who — despite the time and place — is completely accepted for who he is.”
According to the Spanish-language publication Atodomomento, in the book “The Patroness of Pablo Escobar,” Colombian journalist José Guarnizo describes Herrera as “an immigrant who went from being an anonymous Latin mechanic to one of the most wealthy members of the Cartel de Cali” and says that Herrera was “one of the few homosexuals who climbed high in” the cartel world. His real full name was Hélmer Herrera Buitrago.
Herrera was murdered in prison. “Two years after he surrendered to Colombian authorities, one of the country’s most infamous drug lords was shot to death this morning as he played soccer in a prison yard outside Cali,” The Washington Post reported in 1998. Herrera was 47 when he died.
“The assassin fired six rounds from a 9mm pistol into Herrera’s head and abdomen during a break in the soccer game,” according to The Post. He wasn’t serving a very long sentence, only just under seven years, The Post reported, identifying the assassin as a lawyer who gave his name as Rafael Angel Uribe Serna.
In real life, it was the gunman who hugged Herrera while delivering the death blows. “Prison officials said the gunman approached Helmer ‘Pacho’ Herrera as he was playing football in the exercise yard, hugged him, and then shot him in the head,” BBC reported at the time. The United States had tried, but failed, to extradite Herrera.