Dressed in camouflage, her face covered in mud, Ismaira Figueroa holds her position on a hill, rifle in hand, as she takes part in military exercises simulating an invasion.
“I feel like I was born to do this and if I had to die for this . . . I’m ready,” says the 43-year-old sniper from the “Milicia”, a civilian militia attached to the armed forces.
“Dying for my country, for my children, for my mother, for my siblings. I’m ready to give my life,” she adds.
Figueroa says she’s ready to defend Venezuela and the populist socialist “Bolivarian” regime of President Nicolas Maduro from any “invading army”.
She’s a single mother of four, including a three-year-old daughter.
When not wearing military fatigues, Figueroa is a make-up artist and stylist. She also does social work in her community, is a biker and knits in her spare time.
In her home in the Palomera neighborhood in Caracas, Figueroa has a photo of late former leader Hugo Chavez, whom she views as a god.
In 1994, aged 16, she unsuccessfully tried to see him leaving prison, and once climbed a tree to try to “touch his finger”.
When Chavez came to power in 1999, he began implementing social policies that proved highly popular with much of the population, although he was accused of authoritarianism by his detractors.
Figueroa was one of the people who took to the streets in 2002 to “save” Chavez as a coup d’etat unfolded to remove him from power. It lasted only two days.
It was for Chavez that Figueroa joined the Milicia he created in 2009 and described as “people in arms”.
“We are not a little enemy,” said Figueroa, a second sergeant. “The Milicia is the vegetable seller, the dog walker. a teacher, a taxi driver, a nurse.”
Maduro claims there are four million members of the militia out of a population of 30 million.
‘Men don’t like someone in their zone’
Figueroa had never thought about becoming a sniper when she joined the Milicia in 2010, but her unit commander convinced her to try.
“It’s a world that is mostly male,” she said. “Men don’t like it much when someone is in their zone. When you’re a sniper who shoots better. it awakens a certain zeal.”
She keeps a folder with her diplomas, including a sheet of paper with six holes in it that confirmed her graduation as an “expert marksman” in 2016.
It’s called a “fly” because from a distance, the six holes appear to be a single black dot.
“Before pulling the trigger. you empty your mind and just concentrate on your breathing,” said Figueroa.
“You relax again and let the shot surprise you.”
Figueroa says she’s only fired her gun in practice.
“I’ve never killed anyone,” she said, though insists she is prepared to do so.
Maduro has accused both the US and neighbouring Colombia – his main international detractors – of planning to assassinate him.
In May 2020, Venezuelan authorities thwarted an attempted sea invasion by mercenaries that left eight dead and 66 people captured, including two retired US servicemen.
‘I’m not a masochist’
Before she joined the militia, Figueroa was a member of the Bolivarian Circles – political and social worker organisations created by Chavez – that were accused of violence against opponents to the regime, something she denies.
Strolling through Plaza Bolivar in the Baruta neighborhood of Caracas, Figueroa greets neighbors, police and bikers.
She says she gets on equally with the regime’s supporters and its opponents, although claims to have once been fired over her support for Chavez.
And she is as committed to Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution” as ever.
She plans to keep progressing within the Milicia, where she earns just $4 a month – around four times the minimum wage.
She blames low wages on Venezuela’s economic crisis and the international sanctions imposed against the Maduro regime, including an oil embargo.
“My conscience isn’t worth a kilogramme of flour. The more hungry I am, the more I love the revolution. That’s not being a masochist, it’s just that you cannot let up in this battle.”