In the last few years a political sea-change has swept away most of the U.S.-sponsored, repressive military dictatorships in South America. Democratically elected and in some cases explicitly socialist-oriented governments predominate from Venezuela and Ecuador to Chile and Argentina. The tide of change is even starting to touch Paraguay, long a poster child of absolutist rule and abysmal poverty.

Continent-wide economic and social cooperation is growing to overcome the grievous legacy left by U.S. corporate domination.

Cracks were even growing in the long standoff between the U.S.-backed Uribe regime and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), with the recent release of half a dozen FARC-held hostages brokered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba.

Enter the Colombian military’s brazen incursion into Ecuador to murder FARC leader Raul Reyes and 19 other insurgents. Colombia claimed hot pursuit. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa countered with survivors’ accounts and Ecuadorian military reports showing the insurgents were bombed from the air, and Colombian troops then arrived to shoot survivors and take away Reyes’ body.

Now both Ecuador and Venezuela have recalled their ambassadors from Bogota and mobilized troops on their borders with Colombia. Governments throughout Latin America and around the world are protesting the incursion.

Speculation is widespread about the involvement of U.S. intelligence services in the strike.

Scandals plaguing President Alvaro Uribe’s administration undoubtedly played a significant role in the attack. In the last year criticisms have mounted over Uribe’s and his administration’s links to extreme right paramilitaries and to drug traffickers. It’s not unusual for a government in domestic trouble to engineer a military distraction.

But it doesn’t take much probing to see whose interests are served by fomenting a situation in which Latin American energies become focused on a conflict within the continent.

Especially when that conflict could aggravate the struggles between increasingly displaced elites and long-suppressed indigenous and popular forces in countries seeking to take a progressive direction, and to take attention away from efforts to unite the continent around positive economic and social development.