CHARALLAVE, Venezuela – The women, some trembling, grasp the assault rifles and awkwardly lower themselves into sniper positions as they take aim and fire at white targets in the distance. Dressed in jeans and sneakers, the women are the unlikely heart of a new civilian militia being trained as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez warns his country must be ready for a "war of resistance" against the United States.
The U.S. government dismisses Chavez's claims of a possible invasion as ridiculous. But Chavez insists Venezuelans must be prepared for anything, citing a short-lived 2002 coup that briefly unseated him.
Housewives, students, construction workers, social workers and many unemployed have signed up for the Territorial Guard. Lt. Col. Rafael Angel Faria Villalobos, who led the training for 900 volunteers on their first day of bootcamp Saturday, said 20 weeks of instruction will turn them into resistance fighters prepared to defend their communities in the event of a conflict.
"Those who come here have never fired a shot in their lives," he said.
Ten at a time, the volunteers lined up as officers coached them to fire the military's standard-issue Belgian FAL assault rifles from standing, kneeling and prone positions at numbered targets in an open field. Territorial Guard volunteers aren't issued weapons, but commanders said guns would be made available in emergency situations.
"It was exciting, too good," gushed Yomaira Alas, a 28-year-old housewife, after firing the gun for the first time.
Officials say the force will be capable of defending communities, protecting hospitals and schools, keeping order and preventing looting. Some Chavez opponents have expressed concern the force could be used to quell internal dissent.
But soldiers who led Saturday's drills made clear U.S. troops were the hypothetical enemy as men and women swarmed across an obstacle course of barbed wire, burning tires and concrete fortifications.
"Kill the gringo! That gringo is taking away your women," yelled a soldier as he tossed a man a rifle to butt a target — a military uniform stuffed with straw. A siren wailed while the acrid smell of smoke hung in the air.
Besides the Territorial Guard, Chavez also has called for an army reserve of 1 million fighters and has sealed arms deals to supply regular soldiers with 100,000 new Kalashnikov assault rifles and helicopters from Russia.
Despite Chavez's warnings of a possible U.S. invasion, many trainees said they feel it's a remote possibility. There were light moments during the drills as some snapped photos, stumbled on the obstacle course amid laughter and talked excitedly after target practice.
"I'm having a great time," said Sujeidy Pereira, 25, through smiles. Giggling, she added: "Fatherland or death."