The Centro Mercado Latino in Phoenix is a giant warehouse filled with vendors peddling everything from cell phone accessories to quinceñera dresses to parakeets. On Sundays, there are lucha libre wrestling matches in the corner.
But there’s something unexpected tucked next to a kiosk selling alarm systems: a campaign booth promoting a presidential candidate — for Mexico.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador is the frontrunner in Mexico’s July 1 presidential election. The left-leaning veteran candidate is winning over supporters on both sides of the border, with a pledge to crack down on corruption and change Mexico’s course.
From a booth decorated in Mexican flags and photos of the smiling, silver-haired candidate, López Obrador’s energetic fans in Phoenix have been getting out the local expat vote all spring.
Carmen Pérez Noyola, a 26-year-old paralegal in Phoenix, just sent her absentee ballot marked for López Obrador back to Mexico. It was the first time the Sonora, Mexico, native had voted in her life.
“It’s honestly an honor to vote for someone like him,” said Pérez Noyola, who regularly volunteers at the campaign booth. “Just knowing it is for someone who I really believe is going to make a change in Mexico.”
López Obrador ran for president twice before, but this year the 64-year-old’s campaign caught fire. Recent polls show he has a double-digit lead over the second place candidate. Some polls indicate he has 50 percent of voters' support in the four-way race.
There are also signs he is the favorite among Mexicans living in the United States. A poll of Mexican registered voters in the US by Latino Decisions, a polling firm, found López Obrador had a 32-point lead over his closest rival. Only 181,256 Mexicans are registered to vote from abroad, however, which is a small sliver of the nearly 90 million Mexican voters.
López Obrador’s anti-establishment message resonates with Mexican voters because so many are fed up and anxious for change. Corruption scandals have plagued current President Enrique Pena Nieto’s administration and his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Homicide rates are at record highs as the country’s bloody drug war, connected to organized criminal groups, persists. More than 40 percent of the population lives in poverty.
López Obrador’s Morena party, which stands for National Regeneration Movement, is not yet five years old. He has promised to crack down on corrupt political elites and slash the salaries of top government officials. He wants to make Mexico self-sufficient in food and energy.
Critics paint López Obrador as a power-hungry populist who will doom the economy with nationalist policies. Others say his proposals are too vague.
In a move seemingly designed to widen his appeal, López Obrador has moderated some of his positions. For example, he reversed his opposition to the North American Free Trade Act. He has welcomed private sector leaders and politicians who once led opposing parties to join his campaign. His broad coalition spans the political spectrum.
López Obrador’s pre-campaign visit to Phoenix last year galvanized the local Morena movement. On that trip, López Obrador visited several US cities to criticize President Donald Trump’s immigration and southern border-related policies. He pledged his support for immigrants in the US.
Local activists refer to the campaign booth as a Morena campaign office, but it is a grassroots volunteer effort independent from party officials in Mexico, said activist Lorena Schmit.
“We are just regular citizens,” Schmit said. “We are worried about what is going on in the country, we want a change in our country. We started organizing ourselves.”
This is the first year activists in Phoenix have made such an effort for the candidate. The difference, they said, is the momentum of López Obrador’s campaign, and a change in the voter registration process that made it possible for more Mexicans abroad to vote because the paperwork could be done without returning to Mexico.
Manuel Marroquín, a 59-year-old cook, is a fixture at the campaign booth. He volunteers several days a week after his shifts at a restaurant.
“Together we can make history and end corruption, end impunity, end the government pillaging our country,” Marroquín says with passion to those who stop by.
He hands out business cards with the Morena logo and the slogan, “The hope of Mexicans in the United States” — a twist on Morena’s slogan, “The hope of Mexico.”
Throughout the spring, Mexican citizens dropped by to get free advice about the steps required to vote from abroad. By now the deadline to register for an absentee ballot has long passed, so Marroquín tells people they can vote in Mexico on July 1 if they have a valid voter ID and immigration documents to cross back into the US. The border is more than a three-hour drive away.
Some visitors to the booth describe wanting to vote because they hope to move back to Mexico one day if things can improve there. In some cases, Trump’s combative rhetoric against Mexicans and ramped up immigration enforcement is a factor.
“There used to be less racism,” said Luis Rodríguez, a 49-year-old welder who supports López Obrador and visited the campaign booth in mid-May. “But these days, it seems like the lid is off, and [racism] is spreading all over the United States.”
As a volunteer at the booth, Carmen Pérez Noyola, the first-time voter, met Mexican citizens who were too cynical about politics back home to register to vote.
“They just don't really think there's going to be a change,” Pérez said.
She said she feels an urgency to be involved in this election despite the fact that she left Mexico when she was thirteen, has lived in Arizona half her life, and recently became a US citizen.
“I still have family back there,” Pérez said. She said she wishes the education opportunities she had after coming to the US were available to young people in Mexico, for the sake of both countries.
“In the long run, if we have a good economy and a good life in Mexico, that also affects the US,” Pérez said.
She can’t seem to forget something Trump said during his presidential campaign.
“The focus of the last campaign was that Mexico was sending its worst,” Pérez said, paraphrasing a quote from Trump. “Well, we don't want to be the worst. We know are not the worst, and we have so much potential.”
López Obrador also has his critics on both sides of the border.
Alfonso Ochoa is a 41-year-old stockbroker in the Phoenix suburbs who fears a López Obrador presidency will hold back Mexico even more.
“There is this feeling in Mexico that things are a complete disaster or in bad shape,” said Ochoa, who moved to the US 12 years ago.
But if López Obrador were to become president, he said, “I feel it could get worse.”
Ochoa worries López Obrador will damage Mexico’s economy with too much government spending and will weaken the country’s democratic institutions.
Ochoa points to the way López Obrador responded when he narrowly lost the 2006 election to Felipe Calderón by half a percentage point. López Obrador blamed fraud, mounted a major protest that paralyzed central Mexico City for weeks, and declared himself the “legitimate president.”
“It's a very young democracy, and a having a person who has so much interest in having power just for the sake of power could jeopardize those institutions at some level,” Ochoa said.
Ochoa decided months ago he would vote for whichever candidate had the best chance of beating López Obrador.
At the end of May, he mailed in his ballot for Ricardo Anaya, 39-year-old National Action Party politician who represents a right-left coalition this year. Ochoa said he trusts Anaya on economic policy and likes that he supports free trade.
Some business leaders in Mexico have reportedly pressured their employees not to vote for López Obrador. A flurry of news articles this spring suggested that speculation of a López Obrador victory is the reason the Mexican peso has fallen in value.
Ochoa has not lost hope that López Obrador could still lose.
“Polls do not necessarily tell us the whole story,” Ochoa said of López Obrador’s lead. “We know what happened with Trump and Hillary.”
More than 12 million Mexicans, about eight percent of all Mexican citizens, live outside of Mexico, making it one of the biggest diasporas in the world. Last year these Mexicans abroad sent almost $29 billion in remittances back to their home country.
Despite their large numbers and economic power, Mexican expats have historically lacked political power at home. Mexicans gained the right to vote from outside the country in 2006, but the process required a voter ID credential only available in Mexico. Participation from abroad was low in 2006 and 2012.
When it became possible this year for Mexicans abroad to get voter IDs at Mexican consulates, some hoped it would finally create a true diaspora voting bloc.
Xóchitl Bada is a professor of Latino and Latin American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she studies the Mexican diaspora. She expected voter registration numbers this year to be much higher than 181,256. The number is three times greater than in 2012, but still reflects a tiny fraction of the millions who are eligible.
“It’s a missed opportunity,” Bada said. She blames the quirks of the registration process, not a lack of interest in politics among Mexican expats.
Bada, who went through the registration process herself, found it overly complex. Some consulates, like the one in Dallas, were overwhelmed with the demand for appointments from would-be voters.
“Who has time to spend three or four or five hours in different moments for all these multiple the steps that you had to endure to finally get your ballot at home, just for voting?” Bada asked. “This system should be simplified.”
More than 670,000 Mexicans abroad applied to get voter ID credentials at the consulates this year. But only a fraction completed the second step necessary to register to vote, suggesting there may have been a breakdown in people’s understanding of the registration process.
In the last two presidential elections, voters abroad have favored the National Action Party, or PAN, which was Mexico's leading opposition party for years. Bada said the Mexican diaspora is consistently anti-PRI since many blame that party for conditions in Mexico that pushed them to migrate.
But the small numbers of registered voters abroad means politicians aren’t motivated to court them.
“I don't think that any campaign has taken seriously the need to craft a message for voters abroad — because there are just so few of them,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a journalism professor at the Mexico City-based public research institute known as CIDE.
After all, candidates have to get the biggest bang for their buck, Bravo Regidor said: “It [would be] like organizing a meeting in a little town in the middle of nowhere where there are very few people.”
But Bravo Regidor said increasing the number of registered voters abroad would be incredibly costly for the Mexican government. The government's electoral arm spent close to $200 facilitating each vote abroad in the last election, compared to $6 for each vote in Mexico, according to Univision. The expense is due to postage for the ballots and systems to secure the process against fraud.
Zorayda Avila Toledo, an immigrants' rights advocate with Alianza Americas in Chicago, had hoped to hear detailed proposals from the presidential candidates about immigrant issues. But she said she has been disappointed by the lack of specifics.
“When they say, ‘We are going to protect all the Mexicans abroad’ — how are you going to do it? What are the actual steps one, two and three so your message becomes concrete? That’s what worries us,” Avila said in Spanish. She received her ballot in Chicago, but didn't say who she is voting for. She said none of the candidates reflect her priorities.
These days, López Obrador’s Phoenix supporters are both excited about his clear lead in the polls and anxious that something could go wrong.
They trade nervous texts about the possibility of election fraud.
“Let’s see if they let [López Obrador] get it,” Francisco Cebreros said in Spanish. The 74-year-old helps his daughter run a business in Phoenix and travels back to Sonora, Mexico, frequently. “People have said the other times the election was stolen from him.”
Before Mexico adopted sweeping electoral reforms in the 1990s, the PRI maintained power, and elections were not free and fair. Now there is an independent body overseeing elections, but some voters today are still distrustful.
Cebreros noted the PRI is back in power, and in his opinion, the party has “a lot of money and skill at doing election fraud.”
Carmen Pérez Noyola has even darker fears about what could happen to López Obrador.
“He reminds me a lot of a candidate from the '90s, who was also very popular,” Pérez Noyola said. “Unfortunately they did not let him continue. He was assassinated.”
The candidate she is referring to is Luis Donaldo Colosio, who was murdered in 1994.
This election year has already been one of Mexico’s most violent, with more than 100 candidates and politicians murdered since September.
Pérez Noyola then brushed away the thought.
“If they tried to do something to Lopez Obrador, the people would not put up with it,” she said. “I’m confident that he is going to win.”
And once the Mexican election is behind her, Pérez Noyola says she will turn her focus to a different race: the US midterms.
She wants to help pro-immigrant politicians win. And as a new US citizen, she’ll have a voice in American elections from now on, too.