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On the Way to Mexico’s Vote

The coming July 1 election has brought out fake TV ads, robocalls, and a leading populist candidate

The anonymous calls have been going out across the country, a voice from an unmarked number sometimes sounding in the middle of the night. The robo-recording ominously warns: “If you sympathize with Andrés Manuel López Obrador, you should know that he’s promised to give amnesty to criminals involved in narco-trafficking.”

A few of my friends in Mexico City have gotten the call, and more than a few have reacted with typical wry Mexican humor. Alonso, a theater director, posted to Facebook: “I was going to vote for AMLO but then I got one of the calls telling me not to. Now, no way!”

With weeks until voters hit the polls on July 1 to elect a new president and decide a long list of down-ballot races, the mystery calls are just the latest salvo in the dirty arms race of Mexican electoral politics, with the balance of them aimed at one candidate. For the first time in decades an independent, left-progressive populist has a commanding lead in the polls to govern the unruly nation of 130 million. Barring an unforeseen last minute mega-scandal, he will almost certainly be Mexico’s next president.

Despite his opponents’ best efforts, AMLO bears little resemblance to the Venezuelan communist caudillo of the right’s fever dreams.

Predictably, the Mexican One Percent is freaking the hell out.

The second richest man in the country, owner of a chain of high-end department stores, recently organized mandatory staff meetings across the country where management pleaded with workers not to vote “out of anger” for López Obrador (known universally by his full initials, AMLO).

It’s hard to say how many employees were swayed: many make barely $300 a month in stores that sell Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags to Mexico’s elite. But the approach generated predictably hilarious memes on Mexican Twitter, where #SoyTotalmenteAMLO (“I am totally AMLO”) quickly picked up steam, a play on the department store’s cheesy marketing tagline.

A few weeks previously bus ads for a new TV series called “Populism in Latin America” popped up all over the capital for a new TV series called “Populism in Latin America.” The wraparound ads depicted a grinning AMLO standing next to Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chavez, dark storm clouds hovering in the background. The start of the series was billed as imminent, but curiously no release date, time, or channel were displayed on the ads, which were eventually taken down after the city government intervened.

The list goes on, from fake news linking AMLO to Russia, or maybe it’s Venezuela, to a rumor claiming that his wife, a Mexican woman of German descent, is related to a notorious SS war criminal (she’s not). Meanwhile the candidate’s poll numbers continue to climb: the latest has him at 52 percent in a three-horse match up against two other unpopular establishment candidates.

So what are Mexico’s millionaires so afraid of? And what’s the secret sauce behind the rise of AMLO, a one-time Mexico City mayor and three-time presidential candidate who tours the country gleefully characterizing Mexico’s elite as a corrupt “mafia of power”? (Spoiler alert for U.S. readers: it has very little to do with Donald Trump).

For one, despite his opponents’ best efforts, AMLO bears little resemblance to the Venezuelan communist caudillo of the right’s fever dreams. He’s closer to a Mexican Bernie Sanders, or a more colorful version of Uruguay’s liberal, pragmatic, pot-legalizing former president José “Pepe” Mujica.

AMLO has never once called for a Venezuelan style expropriation of private property, and his “radicalism” is mostly old school Robert F. Kennedy-style liberalism, with a Mexican twist: expanding the social safety net in a country where almost half the citizens live in poverty, reviewing suspect government contracts and cracking down on corruption, supporting farmers and small businesses, and fighting poverty instead of fighting a disastrous, failed drug war. He says he’ll turn the president’s sumptuous official residence into a public park, and reduce the outlandishly generous pensions received by former presidents.

They’re planning to vote for AMLO, but are more than ready to hit the streets if the far-right tries to go after hard-won rights

He’s also sophisticated about who he surrounds himself with, picking charismatic advisors like his Twitter-savvy campaign manager Tatiana Clouthier (known as “Auntie Tati” to her fans), and backing qualified, popular candidates for down ballot races, like the highly esteemed environmental engineer who will almost certainly be voted in as Mexico City’s next mayor.

He’s also far from perfect: AMLO has been criticized from the left for aligning with a small but deeply conservative evangelical party. But many people I know, including a friend who’s an LGBTQ rights activist and works in HIV/AIDS prevention, have an eyes-wide-open attitude about this unseemly alliance. They’re planning to vote for AMLO, but are more than ready to hit the streets if the far-right tries to go after hard-won rights like marriage equality, which was legalized in Mexico City years before it became the law of the land in the United States.

Another reason AMLO is charging ahead in the polls is more cut and dry: Mexican voters have been paying attention to what’s been happening in the country, and they’re sick and tired of being sick and tired (or in the local parlance: “hasta la madre!”). It’s not hard to see why. The rogues’ gallery of people in high places robbing the country blind reads like an over-the-top telenovela script full of comic book villainy. Here are just a few recent examples:

Imagine a major federal agency awarded tens of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to a web of companies, some of which only existed on paper, and are all owned by the same family. The CEO even admits with little apparent shame to buying plane tickets to Miami, for officials involved in the procurement process. This is not Scott Pruitt’s EPA! It’s just the latest scandal engulfing Mexico’s equivalent of the Health and Human Services Department, unearthed by one of the country’s scrappiest and best independent news sites.

This kind of payola is actually so common in Mexico it’s rarely in the news for long, but you’d think when tied to the biggest corruption scandal in Latin American history, officials caught with their hands in the cookie jar might face consequences. In Mexico, you’d be mistaken.

Prosecutors across the Americas have been unraveling an $800 million bribery scheme organized by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to land infrastructure bids across the region. Plea deals have been signed, evidence has poured out, and presidents and high government officials have fallen from Brazil to Peru to Ecuador, with some already serving jail time. But when an investigation into $10 million in Odebrecht bribes implicated one of the Mexican president’s top lieutenants, the trail went cold. The attorney general tasked with digging into the case was fired last year. Apparently he showed too much enthusiasm for his work.

It goes on, and on. Last month Mexican journalists found the wife of a disgraced ex-governor living in one of London’s most expensive neighborhoods. Her husband’s circumstances are less lavish: he’s awaiting trial for corruption back in Mexico, and is also under investigation for links to brutal narco death squads in the state he formerly ruled over. The former first lady herself is linked to a particularly cruel scheme that funneled taxpayer money, earmarked to buy wheelchairs for the disabled and cancer medicine for poor children, into dozens of phantom companies under her control. Interpol has a warrant out for her arrest.

In fact the country has produced a stunning roster of fugitive politicians linked to the ruling PRI party in just the last year or two; clearly the fish rots from the head. The outgoing government of President Enrique Peña Nieto has aggressively sabotaged the country’s flagship anti-corruption commission—a body Mexican civil society groups campaigned for years to create—and Mexico has fallen thirty rungs in Transparency International’s world corruption ranking in just the last few years. The country now beats out Sierra Leone, Burma and Azerbaijan to wallow in the bottom quarter of the world’s most corrupt governments.

It’s one of the reasons AMLO’s harangues against Mexico’s corrupt “mafia of power” resonate so deeply with voters here. Everywhere you look, it’s absolutely true.

Amidst this generalized mayhem, one of the most emblematic and lasting moral stains on the sitting government remains the unresolved disappearance of forty-three education students.

And maybe, just maybe, all this world-class corruption wouldn’t be so infuriating if the country was otherwise humming along. But Mexico is limping into the second bloody decade of a drug war adopted by both establishment political parties (the PAN and the PRI) that’s left over two hundred thousand corpses and over thirty thousand missing across the country. It’s accomplished almost nothing except making violence more widespread, wanton, and savage. Journalists, students, priests and nuns are gunned down and disappeared on a regular basis, and Mexico just clocked it’s most murderous year in recorded history. Meanwhile the core conditions of representative democracy are under attack: over 110 candidates for elected office have been murdered since campaigning started last September. The latest was shot in the head while posing for a selfie.

Amidst this generalized mayhem, one of the most emblematic and lasting moral stains on the sitting government remains the unresolved disappearance of forty-three education students, who vanished one night in a protest gone horrifically wrong in the poor state of Guerrero. It’s been almost four years, and while dozens have been detained, not a single person has stood trial. Signs of a cover-up are everywhere. International investigators were barred from interviewing members of the army, stationed in a nearby barracks the night of the disappearance, and a cache of arms recovered near the crime scene was secretly destroyed by the armed forces.

And while other candidates have shied away from the story, AMLO has met with families of the students, and recently called for a new truth commission to get to the bottom of this horror. The demand was just given legal force in a surprise ruling by a federal judge in northern Mexico, who rebuked the government’s investigation as incompetent and deceitful.

Despite this dystopian litany, more than a few people I’ve crossed paths with over the last so many months have told me an AMLO win would be a “disaster” for the country. A successful businessman tells me he’s worried about a reversal of recent energy sector reforms, and that the candidate’s proposed social welfare payments, amounting to barely $75 a month, will sap the work ethic of the country’s poor. A Mexico City gallery owner I’ve met a few times, when not posting photos from chic art fairs in Miami and Milan, shares apocalyptic warnings on Facebook about what will happen if “You know who” is elected, a popular anti-AMLO shorthand borrowed from Harry Potter’s “He-who-must-not-be-named.”

More than once I’ve thought to myself, “Seriously? If this isn’t a disaster, what the hell is?”

To be fair, for the very rich and well-connected Mexico is mostly not a disaster, and that’s largely the point. And there are also many, many things to love about Mexico, from a capital that’s home to more world class restaurants, museums and cultural attractions than you could hope to see in a lifetime, to an abundance of charming towns, beautiful beaches and landscapes across the country that remain relatively safe. And hands down Mexicans are some of the friendliest, most hospitable people on the planet, drawing from an immense well of pride in their culture and their history.

Which, from what I can tell, is where a lot of the outrage and incredulity driving this election cycle comes from: a proud and extremely pissed off feeling that this country can and should be better, richer, fairer and safer, and that it deserves to be governed by qualified people, for once, who don’t make the Italian mafia seem like Sunday School teachers.

A while ago I chatted up an Uber driver to to get his take on the election. He said he’d voted for the PAN in 2006, and gone with the PRI in 2012, and that was enough to tell him the two major parties were corrupt to the bone, and had done almost nothing to improve most people’s lives. With an I’ve heard it all before attitude, he told me this election he’ll be voting for AMLO.

“They say he’s crazy, but I’ll give him a chance. It’s time for Mexico to try something new, If we stay the way we’re going, we’re screwed.” To this day I haven’t met a single taxi driver who hasn’t told me some version of the same, and who won’t be voting for AMLO on July 1.