Colombian soldiers, who are highly skilled and experienced in their profession, have volunteered to serve in Ukraine.
Melodic Colombian Spanish fills a hospital treating soldiers wounded fighting Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.
Due to two years of ongoing warfare, Ukraine’s military forces have been significantly reduced. In their fight against the Russian military, Ukraine has also been receiving experienced soldiers from a long-standing conflict in another part of the world.
Professional soldiers from Colombia bolster the ranks of volunteers from around the world who have answered Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s call for foreign fighters to join his nation’s war with Russia.
A 32-year-old individual from Medellin attempted to rescue a co-worker who was injured during three consecutive days of intense combat against Russian troops. The group was targeted by Russian drones, and shrapnel from a grenade thrown by one of them penetrated the individual’s jawbone.
“The individual, known as Checho, expressed that he believed he was going to perish,” stated the fighter. They demanded to be referred to by their military call signs due to concerns for their well-being and that of their loved ones.
Checho said, “We woke up and made the decision to flee our location in order to preserve our lives. We had nowhere to seek shelter.”
For decades, the military in Colombia has been engaged in combat with drug-trafficking cartels and rebel factions, resulting in its soldiers gaining extensive experience and making them among the most seasoned in the world.
Colombia possesses a military force of 250,000, making it the second largest in Latin America, only behind Brazil. Annually, over 10,000 members retire from service. Recently, a significant number have chosen to join the conflict in Ukraine, where they can earn up to four times the salary of experienced non-commissioned officers in Colombia.
According to Andrés Macías, a researcher at Bogota’s Externado University, Colombia’s military is well-equipped and well-trained, but their salaries are not as competitive compared to other militaries. He specializes in examining the work of Colombian military contractors on a global scale.
In the early 2000s, retired soldiers from Colombia started traveling abroad to work for American military contractors. Their duties included safeguarding infrastructure, such as oil wells, in Iraq. Additionally, former members of the Colombian military have been recruited as trainers in the United Arab Emirates and have joined forces in Yemen to fight against Houthi rebels backed by Iran.
Colombia’s participation in the worldwide security sector extends to its less reputable and profit-driven aspects as well: Following allegations of involvement in the murder of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, two Colombians were slain and 18 were detained.
At the hospital for injured Ukrainian soldiers, there is a contingent of approximately fifty Colombian fighters who spend a majority of their day looking at their phones. They use their phones to call home, surf the internet, and listen to music while they eat and receive medical treatment for minor injuries.
As the war between Ukraine and Russia nears its two-year mark, both sides are at a standstill. According to Oleksandr Shahuri, an officer in the Department of Coordination of Foreigners in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Ukraine is now broadening its recruitment system to allow individuals from any country to join the army.
In the beginning of 2022, officials reported that 20,000 individuals from 52 different nations were present in Ukraine. Currently, due to the confidential nature regarding military figures, officials are refusing to disclose the exact number of individuals on the battlefield. However, they have noted that there has been a shift in the profile of fighters.
Initial groups of volunteers primarily originated from former Soviet nations or nations where English is the primary language, according to Shahuri. Being able to speak Russian or English facilitated their assimilation into the Ukrainian military.
The previous year, the armed forces established a system of Spanish-speaking recruiters, teachers, and lower-ranking operational officers, according to his statement.
In the past eight months, Hector Bernal, a former combat medic who now operates a tactical medicine facility near Bogota, has provided training to over 20 Colombians who have subsequently participated in conflicts in Ukraine.
According to Bernal, these individuals are similar to Latin American immigrants who travel to the United States in pursuit of a brighter future. They are not volunteers who aim to defend the flag of another nation, but are driven by economic necessity.
Although Colombia’s generals receive a monthly salary and bonuses of approximately $6,000, equivalent to that of a government minister, lower-ranking soldiers make do with significantly less income.
In Colombia, corporals receive a starting salary of approximately $400 per month, while seasoned drill sergeants can make up to $900. The current monthly minimum wage in Colombia is $330.
In Ukraine, any individual serving in the military, regardless of nationality, is eligible for a monthly payment of up to $3,300 based on their position and duties. In the event of injury, they may receive up to $28,660 depending on the extent of their wounds. If they are killed while on duty, their loved ones are entitled to compensation of $400,000.
Checho claims that his moral values compelled him to journey to Kyiv in September of last year. He approximates that there were approximately 100 other Colombian fighters in his unit who also made the trip.
He acknowledged that our numbers are small, but we are dedicated to giving our all in order to bring about change as quickly as possible.
In Colombia, news of recruitment for the Ukrainian army is primarily shared through social media. Several volunteers currently serving in Ukraine offer information about the recruitment procedure on platforms like TikTok and WhatsApp.
However, in the event of an issue, obtaining updates about their family members can be challenging for loved ones.
Diego Espitia lost contact with his cousin Oscar Triana after Triana joined the Ukrainian army in August 2023. Six weeks later, the retired soldier from Bogota stopped posting updates on social media.
Due to the absence of a Ukrainian embassy in Bogota, Triana’s family sought assistance from the Ukrainian embassy in Peru and the Colombian consulate in Poland, the final country Triana traveled through before entering Ukraine. However, they did not receive a response from either organization.
“We are requesting information from the authorities in both countries and asking them to respond to our emails,” stated Espitia.
The Associated Press located a Colombian combatant known as Oso Polar – Polar Bear – who claims to have been the last person to see Triana alive on October 8, 2023. According to him, Triana’s group was attacked by Russian troops in the Kharkiv area and his whereabouts remained uncertain.
The Associated Press has received confirmation from the Ukrainian military unit where Triana was stationed that he is officially missing. However, they have not revealed any information about the events leading to his disappearance.
Espitia, his cousin, says he’s not sure what motivated Triana to fight in Ukraine. But the 43-year-old had served in the Colombian army for more than 20 years and leaving it had been “mentally difficult,” Espitia said.
Espitia stated that it’s possible that the individual’s motivation for going could have been due to financial gain or a desire for the thrill of combat. However, the person did not share much about their specific reasons for going.
After spending nearly three weeks in the hospital, Checho has gone back to the front line in Ukraine. More than 50 other Colombian fighters who received treatment at the same facility have also returned.
Checho informed AP that the current circumstances are difficult. Despite facing continuous attacks, they will continue to resist.