Olancho, directed and produced by Chris Valdes and Ted Griswold, is a story about a band, called Los Plebes de Olancho, who are renowned for their cartel ballads, a genre of music known locally as “narco-corrido.” As frontman Manuel, whose last name is never revealed, tells viewers, “Los Plebes” are the region’s farmers, who struggle to survive.
According to the film’s website, Olancho is “the most lawless province in Honduras, the most murderous country in the world.” In the opening scene of the film, Manuel, the band’s front man and primary songwriter, tells a radio host on air that, “Olancho is famous for its machetes and guns … They say in Olancho: ‘Enter if you want, leave if you can,’ and it’s true.”
The region is also known for its lush mountains conducive to growing coffee, and its low valleys, where ranching is the predominant industry. About ten years ago, that same landscape made it a popular last stop for planes smuggling cocaine into the United States. Now, it’s run by cartels. All the main characters carry guns in their belt loops, and it’s impossible to book a gig if you don’t have a cartel ballad in your repertoire. At one point, Manuel explains that farm workers make less than $5 per day in Olancho, and that singing cartel ballads is a dangerous but effective way of making money and music. Olancho is a collection of stories from the two years Griswold and Valdes spent following the musicians from their remote mountain village to performances at rowdy “narco-parties” hosted by the most powerful drug lords in Latin America.
Los Plebes de Olancho are a compelling set of characters. Manuel’s brother manages the band, but spends most of his days working for his father and playing with his kids. Orlin, the accordion player, sings folk songs for their grandmother, but steals away in the night to perform solo for drug lords who pay him in cash and cocaine, which his brothers say allows him to play accordion for 10 hours at a time.
Eventually, Manuel is forced to flee Olancho or die after he writes a hit ballad for one cartel and the rival threatens to kill him if he can’t write an equally popular hit for them. He makes his way, harrowingly, through Mexico to the United States, where he spreads mulch and cleans bar rooms. He sings ballads about the people he meets instead of the cartels, and hopes to someday return to Olancho and to his family.
At the end of the film, Manuel is shown singing folk songs at a radio station. He introduces them, saying, “This is for all my people in Olancho,” and sings, “My beloved land of Olancho, that land of happiness, land of my life, land that taught my heart to be free and that taught me how to lose…”