CIUDAD JUAREZ – Mexico’s presidential frontrunner, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, launched his campaign Easter Sunday in this border city where he pledged to double the minimum wage, create a tax-free border commercial zone, and demanded mutual respect from the U.S.
“Mexico and its people will no longer be a piñata for foreign governments,” said López Obrador referring to President Donald Trump.
“Social problems and security issues are not solved by walls and force. Those problems are solved by economic development,” López Obrador told hundreds of supporters at his campaign rally.
His speech was interrupted multiple times by cheering, applause and chants of “presidente.”
In his third run for the presidency, López Obrador, 64, is the candidate of the left leaning Morena party. He’s ahead in the polls in a race that includes three other candidates. His nearest competitor is Ricardo Anaya, 39, of the conservative PAN, or National Action Party, which formed a coalition with smaller leftist political parties. The incumbent PRI party’s candidate, Jose Antonio Meade, is third in polls. And fourth is former First Lady Margarita Zavala, who left the PAN party to run as an independent.
On July 1, as many as 88 million Mexicans will elect their next president, 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies and 128 members of the Senate. Mexicans living abroad have the right to cast absentee ballots and the presidential election is generating interest among voters on both sides of the border.
“We care because we have family in Mexico and we obviously want a better country,” longtime Las Cruces resident Lorena Mendoza said on Saturday as she and her husband Isaias, both originally from Chihuahua City, were at Mexican Consulate in El Paso with a crowd waiting to register to vote abroad.
Mexican Consulates across the U.S. opened their doors on Saturday, the last day to register to vote abroad, and New Mexico residents were among those rushing to meet the deadline.
About 615,000 people had registered to vote abroad as of mid-March, a record number. Mexico’s Electoral Institute will have to validate their applications before they get mail-in ballots. At least 4,500 Mexican voters in New Mexico had registered but authorities expected that number to grow because of a last minute rush in the U.S. at Mexican Consulates.
Gilberto Contreras, a resident of Anthony, New Mexico, said job creation is the top issue in Mexico’s presidential election. “Because of a lack of opportunities, so many people had to migrate to find a new life,” Contreras said while at the Consulate. The business executive was still undecided about whom he would support.
But Marta Hernandez had made up her mind she would vote for López Obrador.
“It’s his time,” said Hernandez, a native of the northern state of Durango who works as caregiver for the elderly in Las Cruces and made the trip to the Consulate.
Maria Garcia, a retired teacher in Ciudad Juarez, was at López Obrador’s rally Sunday morning.
“His campaign represents hope,” she said.
López Obrador’s stop in Juarez is part of a four-day swing through Mexico’s northern border region where he’s promising to create a tax-free commercial zone.
He talked about that idea during a private gathering in El Paso last year.
Jerry Pacheco, president of the Border Industrial Association based in Santa Teresa, was among the select business leaders who attended that meeting.
“You cannot forget the northern states like Chihuahua are production zones and that’s where he was proposing the tax free zone which I thought was incredible,” said Pacheco in an interview last week.
Pacheco was also struck by López Obrador’s calm demeanor at the meeting, a sharp contrast to the candidate’s past image as a fiery populist leader.
“We have so much on the line,” said Pacheco of the Mexico’s presidential election.
Mexico is New Mexico’s largest trading partner and Pacheco said he will be following López Obrador’s campaign to see if he continues to support NAFTA.
“We’re not against the free trade agreement with the U.S. and Canada,” López Obrador told the crowd at his rally in Ciudad Juarez. But he said the signing of the renegotiated agreement should happen after Mexico’s presidential election and he wants “wages and the issue of migration” included in the new agreement.
López Obrador told supporters gathered at the foot of the Benito Juarez monument he chose this city because of its historic significance as the place that fostered resistance against a French invasion in the 1860s and during Mexico’s 1910 revolution.
He said today’s fight was against government corruption and a “mafia” of powerful elites.
“We’re sick of government corruption,” said Alfredo Trevizo, a small business owner in Ciudad Juarez who attended López Obrador’s campaign rally with his wife and three daughters.
“We think this man is different…and we hope he wins,” said Trevizo.