These domestic events were highly influenced by global and regional developments. The 1979 victory of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua meant that much greater attention was given to the revolutionary movements in El Salvador and Guatemala, thrusting the region into the centre of the polarised dynamics of the Cold War with high levels of US intervention. Several Latin American countries realised that they should support a resolution of the Central American conflicts independent of US involvement. In 1983, Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela formed the 'Contadora Group' that, for the first time, recognised the political origins of the wars. The new civilian government of President Cerezo soon adopted a policy of 'active neutrality' identifying the underlying causes of the regional conflicts as distinct from the East-West confrontation.
Within this context, Central American presidents gathered in Esquipulas, Guatemala in 1986 to discuss regional peace issues. They agreed to increase economic cooperation, to oppose the US-supported 'contras' fighting the Sandinista government and to promote the democratic reconstruction of the region. In August 1987, the presidents met again at Esquipulas II. Adopting a modified version of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias' regional peace plan, they signed an agreement articulating the principle of democracy as the prerequisite for conflict resolution and detailing standards that each government was expected to fulfil to promote peace.
It was initially difficult to implement the Esquipulas II agreement in Guatemala, where both the URNG and the army demanded that the other fulfil certain pre-conditions before negotiations could begin. The URNG maintained an ambiguous position: it supported the provision for a national dialogue but simultaneously demanded the removal of counter-insurgency measures. The army's position was more radical: the guerrillas would have to disarm before engaging in dialogue. Neither envisioned initiatives to involve civil society in the debate. Yet in de-emphasising military strategies, the Esquipulas II meeting helped to stimulate the development of new social groups in favour of peace, largely spearheaded by religious organisations, who slowly generated public pressure for dialogue.
Yet Guatemalan society lacked a unified voice on how to achieve peace; nor did it have a civil, economic or political leadership that could envision peacemaking as a road toward national cohesion in the future. The principal dividing lines were between the powerful establishment groupings – the chamber of commerce, the agrarian-export oligarchy and the military – versus the popular movements including peasant associations, trade unions, indigenous people, and cooperatives. The latter tended to ally with other, mostly urban, social groupings – such as the opposition political parties, most church groups, universities and research centres, and small industries – to discuss and promote the social changes they believed necessary to end the war and build peace. Most of the popular groupings were, however, relatively new and had weak links with broad social constituencies and the wider public. Nevertheless, these more progressive groupings became the national engine enabling peace talks.
The Catholic Church played an important leadership role in stimulating public opinion in favour of both a national dialogue and 'humanisation of the war' through trying to find solutions for structural problems. Partially at the instigation of church officials, the government-formed National Reconciliation Commission (CNR) convened a Grand National Dialogue in 1989. It provided the first formal opportunity for civil society to articulate their diverse perspectives about the war and identify the substantive issues later incorporated into the negotiating agenda. A significant outcome was the increased expectation that wider society should be involved in the negotiations. It helped put the conflict into the sphere of politics and to de-emphasise military 'solutions'. The following year, the CNR held talks with the URNG in Norway, under the auspices of the Lutheran World Federation. The negotiations resulted in the signing of the Oslo Accord in March 1990, committing the parties to a political solution to the conflict. The next significant contribution of civil society was to recognise the URNG as a legitimate party to the negotiations. This came out of the series of five meetings (the 'Oslo consultations') held between the URNG with each of the five sectoral groupings following on from the Oslo Accord. These consultations in turn paved the way for official negotiations between the government and the URNG, initially mediated by a Guatemalan Catholic bishop and – after those talks broke down – subsequently by the United Nations.
During the early years of peace talks, particularly between 1991-93, the establishment groupings were gripped by internal struggles over the issues of reform that were increasingly integral to the peace process. Within the military, there were divisions between the 'hard-line' members and the 'constitutionalists', with the former deeply opposed to talking with the URNG and the latter more open to the negotiation process. While most within the business and agro-export elite demanded a military response to the URNG, some recognised the need to modernise and improve Guatemala's international image. Yet virtually all were reluctant to discuss, much less address, the social problems that were included on the negotiating agenda. When President Serrano attempted to suspend the Constitution in May 1993, however, the business sector joined with the other social groupings and with the military's constitutionalists in an impromptu National Consensus Forum to successfully prevent the coup and demand democracy. For the first time, there was visible national consensus on the fundamental value of a democratic system of government.
This experience led to conditions that re-invigorated the peace process, with the military generally favouring negotiations. In 1994, bilateral talks between the government and the URNG – mediated by the UN and supported by key countries in the 'Group of Friends' – resumed again in earnest. They agreed to create a Civil Society Assembly (ASC) involving the diverse sectors of organised society to discuss the substantive issues on the negotiation agenda and provide recommendations to the negotiators. Most of the ASC's recommendations were incorporated into the final accords – thus making civil society a vital, if non-decision making, presence in the negotiations.
Yet after fulfilling its original mandate, the ASC began to fragment. Amidst accusations about the progressive sectors' dominance, representatives disagreed over whether the ASC should define a new role to maintain its voice in the peace process. Ultimately, the debates within the ASC did not carry over into significant influence on implementing the accords – although some sectors continued to exert influence in both society and politics.
Furthermore, the ASC was not the only civil society channel for influencing the talks. The main business association, the Coordinating Committee on Farming, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF) had refused to join either the ASC or the earlier Grand National Dialogue, though it did hold talks with the URNG in the Oslo consultations. When the negotiators discussed the agenda on socio-economic and agrarian issues, the CACIF successfully lobbied against key ASC recommendations. They were able to substitute many of their own recommendations for inclusion in the final agreement – a source of great disappointment for many of the ASC members, who eventually endorsed it nonetheless. Many believed that this compromise marked a national consensus for reform.