Venezuela is nearing completion of an arms factory which will produce 25,000 Kalashnikov and sniper rifles a year, a development which could have troublesome implications for the conflict in neighboring Colombia.
In a June 13 televised speech, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez praised an arms factory in Aragua state, constructed with Russian assistance. Though it is still waiting on equipment from Russia, when production is at full capacity the factory will be able to produce 25,000 rifles and 60 million rounds a year. The factory has already produced 3,000 AK-103 assault rifles, according to Chavez.
The factory (see video below) will produce a series of rifles, which the president referred to as "Catatumbo" rifles. The guns will be available in various calibers, including a .50 caliber anti-materiel version which can be used against vehicles and helicopters. The first of these will be delivered to the military in September.
General Julio Cesar Morales Prieto, head of Venezuela's state-run Cavim arms company, also claimed that the factory will produce a grenade launcher compatible with the AK-103. When the factory is finished Venezuela will produce 18,000 of these a year, with 200 to be produced in September.
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The largest rebel group in neighboring Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are likely to take an interest in this factory. Given that Venezuela has been accused of using the FARC as strategic leverage against neighboring Colombia, there have long been concerns the group may be arming itself in Venezuela, where illicit weapons are extremely common.
The FARC is no stranger to raiding (or buying) government arms stockpiles, so if it wants to avoid accusations it is arming the FARC, Venezuela will need to take precautionary measures to ensure these rifles do not fall into the hands of the rebels.
The guerrilla group is increasingly relying on sniper attacks, and one of "Catatumbo" rifles to be produced reportedly has an effective range of 800 meters, making it an ideal choice for FARC snipers. Additionally, if the rebels were able to get a regular supply of .50 caliber anti-materiel rifles, they could better deter helicopter attacks, denying the Colombian security forces a key advantage: air superiority. For the same reason, the group has reportedly sought anti-air missiles from the Venezuelan authorities, but has apparently failed since none have been seen in combat.