Esquipulas was an ambitious attempt to overcome deep-rooted structural and historical socio-economic inequalities in Central America. It consolidated an autonomous regional space for dialogue that was sufficiently safeguarded from overbearing Cold War geopolitical imperatives and represented an innovative and ad-hoc Latin American regional initiative to resolve regional problems – when more formal regional structures were either compromised or inappropriate. Summits of the five Central American presidents that were developed through Contadora and Esquipulas became the primary regional diplomatic forum.
The presidents did not seek total international isolation, understanding the contribution of appropriate international support to the success of peace processes in Central America; for example, the diplomatic engagement of the European Community, or the recognition provided by the award of the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize to Costa Rican President Oscar Arias.
The UN and the OAS contributed to the political legitimacy and technical capacity of the process by participating in the creation of confidence-building measures, monitoring ceasefire agreements, and supporting the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants and the implementation of the peace agreements. This was done in particular through bodies such as the UN Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL) and the UN Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA).
The success of Esquipulas was also built on the innovative structure and principles of the negotiation process. Esquipulas adopted a two-track negotiation approach. The first track was regional international negotiations between the Central American presidents. The fact that the negotiations were held at the highest political level contributed to the confidence among the negotiating parties and to the credibility of the commitments made by each government. The second track was bilateral negotiations at the regional level between the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, and their respective opposition armed groups.
The ad hoc and flexible negotiation structure of Contadora and Esquipulas was also founded on important prior principles regarding the negotiation agenda, notably simultaneity, international verification, gradualism, political recognition of armed groups and comprehensiveness.
The simultaneous compliance of scheduled commitments and their verification by an international commission – comprising the Secretaries-General of the OAS and the UN, the foreign affairs ministers of the Central American countries, the Group of Contadora and the Support Group – helped to create trust and overcome the aforementioned security dilemma.
Also important was the gradualism of the talks, which sequentially established an end to violence and then addressed the development and integration of Central America. The formal launch of the peace talks was facilitated by the Central American governments agreeing to recognise the political status and demands of the non-state armed groups, and not to demand a ceasefire as a prerequisite for initiating exploratory dialogue.
The comprehensiveness of a negotiation agenda sought to addresss not only the consequences of the war – displacement, demobilisation of combatants, economic and social impact of the conflict – but also some of its structural causes through solutions that went far beyond the traditional power-sharing arrangements.
But despite their diplomatic innovation, the peace agreements in Central America lacked the wide-reaching social support needed to become an effective agenda for economic and political transformation. The role of civil society during the negotiation process was marginal and there was a lack of popular ownership of the peace agreements – despite the fact that the Catholic Church facilitated the talks and has launched numerous initiatives for social reconciliation. Moreover, the capacity of the guerrillas to lead the implementation of the peace agreements and the socio-political change was undermined by their failure to abandon hierarchical and militarised internal structures, and to adapt to a new environment of democratic, electoral competition.
The initial optimism of Esquipulas II was progressively eroded by the failure to implement the agreements. Central American integration was diluted through the 1990s, replaced by bilateral tensions and border conflicts; and transitions to peace and democracy were eclipsed by rising social unrest and criminality. Many governments in the region have resorted to uncompromising security responses, provoking new cycles of violence.