Accusations of voter fraud rose and protests erupted in Bolivia late last year, leading to the resignation of President Evo Morales. Some news outlets and social media sites were calling it a coup d’état.
But, nearly 4,000 miles away, that’s not how U.S. Army veteran Luis Suarez saw it.
“It was not a fair fight,” Suarez, a Bolivian native, now U.S. citizen, told Army Times.
What the 38-year-old former Army sergeant did next landed him in the center of an online storm accusing him of being a traitor, “Cyber Rambo” and, in some conspiracy theories, an agent of the Army’s Cyber Command trying to topple foreign governments.
Suarez saw claims of a coup by Morales supporters as their own form of misinformation, so he wrote a 25-line code algorithm that would retweet anti-Morales posts. It was, he said, something that “any programming student could have done.”
The algorithm managed to cycle more than 13,000 retweets in just a few days, at one point managing 69 tweets per second.
And that little algorithm thrust Suarez into the midst of online accusations, conspiracy theories and headline news across major media outlets focusing on Latin America.
Suarez laughed off the claims in an interview with Army Times, pointing out that he was a mechanic in the Army who reached the rank of sergeant and was medically discharged in 2016 and never served in a cyber unit.
His special Army training? Tracked vehicle recovery.
An Army spokesman told Salon that Suarez had served from 2010 to 2016 as a mechanic with one deployment to Afghanistan. An email request for Suarez’ service history to Army Human Resources Command was not immediately returned Friday.
Suarez does work with computers now. He’s a software engineer who learned programming after the Army at Austin Community College in Texas and at a coding bootcamp at the University of Texas at Austin.
He builds websites, databases and manages telephone applications and computer systems for clients.
Articles by El Diario, a Spanish-language news site and by Salon pull from research by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which identified some of the larger social media patterns.
The commission’s December report found 68,000 fake Twitter accounts in support of Morales’ opposition party candidate Luis Fernando Camacho created 14 hashtags that were then shared by 252,090 different accounts, making for a grand total of 1.05 million tweets in over an eight-day period in November.
Morales resigned that same month following mass protests claiming election fraud.
The second vice president of the Bolivian Senate, Jeanine Añez, declared herself interim president when Morales left office, sparking further protests and claims of a coup by Bolivian left-wingers.
President Donald Trump issued an official statement supporting Morales’ resignation, saying it would help pave the way for a more democratic Latin America.
Post-resignation, thousands of new Twitter accounts emerged, most claiming to be by Bolivians, posting the same message: “Friends from everywhere, in Bolivia there was no coup.”
Suarez was one high-volume poster identified by researchers, specifically Julían Macías Tovar, social media coordinator for the left-wing Spanish political party Podemos.
Tovar told Diario that his analysis found 48,000 Twitter accounts created just four days before the election. He also found 13,000 retweets to anti-Morales or pro-Camacho hashtags from Suarez’ account.
Suarez does not deny the retweets. But he said he didn’t create any fake accounts.
He points out he used his personal account with his photo and later posted a picture of his Bolivian identification card to show that he was a real person and not a “bot."
“I don’t have thousands of fake accounts,” Suarez told Army Times. “Everything I did was from my real account with my name and my photo.”
He said that he reviewed Twitter rules on retweets and maintained those standards, no more than 3,000 per day. And his account was active, and has remained active, since, he said.
The article has been updated to reflect that it was left-wing supporters of former President Evo Morales who called his resignation a ‘coup.'
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.