This article analyses the formation and development of business associations in Central America from the 1960s to the present. It shows how the development of the region's economies and its formal business associations were shaped by increasing economic integration in the region and by foreign governments and institutions. The argument presented is that the role of external actors and increasing international economic and political integration renders inadequate the commonly held explanation regarding the existence and operation of business associations as interest groups in the region. The origin, cohesiveness, evolution and influence of many formal business organizations in Central America is the result not only of a self-help function, the dynamics of business–state relations, or that of business reacting to perceived threats from labour or other organized groups, but also of various international influences. These international forces worked to both divide and unify the region's business interests but overall have increased their numbers and the technical and political capacity of both new and existing organizations. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.