Death in the Andes focuses on the current political and economic problems of Peru. Plagued by a century of dictatorships, military coups, and failed attempts at establishing democratic forms of government in an economically impoverished country, the Marxist-Leninist Sendero Luminoso launched an armed insurrection against the Peruvian government in 1980. For fifteen years, they successfully attacked military and police posts, sabotaged public and private facilities, and assassinated community and political leaders. It is estimated that between 1980 and 1995, the period of greatest conflict, more than twenty-five thousand deaths can be attributed to the revolutionary violence, that billions of dollars of public and private infrastructure were destroyed, and that tens of thousands of peasants abandoned their villages and farms.
The government was equally culpable. During the same period, the Peruvian army was responsible for more than five thousand enforced disappearances and more than one thousand extrajudicial executions. In 1995, human rights groups were outraged when amnesty laws provided institutional immunity for violations committed by the military and other authorities.
In Death in the Andes, Vargas Llosa was primarily concerned with the Peruvians caught between these two extreme factions, the ordinary people trapped haplessly in the middle. These peasants understood neither the vagaries of government politics nor the complexities of political ideologies. They tried to survive in a harsh economic environment in which they were aided only by their native wit and shrewdness.