Around one in five of all Mexico City residents live in Iztapalapa AFP

A cable car soars above brightly painted houses, winding streets and evocative murals in a densely populated Mexico City neighborhood pivotal to the ruling party's chances of keeping control of the capital in upcoming elections.

Known for its musicians, street art and huge market, Iztapalapa has tried to shake off its reputation as one of the most dangerous districts in the metropolis.

Around one in five Mexico City residents live in Iztapalapa, which is considered by some to be a microcosm of the Latin American nation.

With more than 1.8 million inhabitants, it is the most populated district in a vast city that is a jewel in the crown of outgoing President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's left-wing Morena party.

Opinion polls point to a tight race between Morena candidate Clara Brugada and conservative opponent Santiago Taboada for Mexico City mayor -- one of the country's most important political jobs.

Brugada has served three terms as Iztapalapa's mayor, and the ruling party has touted benefits of social projects she oversaw in the eastern district.

A Morena loss there is unthinkable to the party's supporters.

"Iztapalapa has the heart of Morena," Antonieta Garcia, 56, told AFP while preparing tacos in the Central de Abasto, one of Latin America's biggest wholesale markets.

The single mother said she had witnessed the neighborhood's gradual transformation.

Museums have opened, public transportation has improved and welfare benefits allowed her to raise four children, Garcia said.

At the national level, ruling-party candidate Claudia Sheinbaum is the frontrunner to become Mexico's first woman president after the June 2 local, national and presidential elections.

Since 1997, when the capital's mayor began to be elected by popular vote, the left has always won.

Sheinbaum served as Mexico City mayor from 2018 until last year. But in 2021, Morena suffered a blow when the opposition snatched several districts.

If the ruling party were to win the presidency but lose the capital, it would be a bittersweet victory.

Iztapalapa's name in the Indigenous Nahuatl language means "on the earthenware in the water."

The irony is not lost on residents -- almost a quarter of whom suffer from water cuts, according to experts.

Such shortages, as well as widespread crime and a poverty rate of 44 percent, mean some voters in Iztapalapa are leaning towards the right.

German Ramirez, a 71-year-old electrician, said problems with public services, infrastructure and security meant he would vote for "change."

"Past governments promised and promised and never did anything," he said at a rally for Taboada.

Ana Venegas, a 30-year-old school teacher who also sells ice cream in the streets, said life in Iztapalapa had improved.

But, having been a past victim of crime, she still frets about whether she will get to work safely.

"There has been a change, not much but yes," she said. "We're not so worried now."

The motto "from Iztapalapa to the world" was popularized by one of Mexico's most famous musical groups, Los Angeles Azules, who hail from its streets.

With its cumbia rhythms and lyrics about Iztapalapa life, the band took the district's essence to the world stage.

From the air, the neighborhood is a postcard of murals in a valley shrouded by pollution.

A cable car stretching more than 10 kilometers (six miles) whisks thousands of residents every day above congested streets.

A dozen large community centers known as "utopias" offer residents chances to exercise, receive medical care, take classes and use childcare.

Brugada proposes to replicate the model across Mexico City.

Pensioner Senaida Flores, 67, attends one of them almost daily.

"I'm happy here. The day flies by," she said.

In a brief interview with AFP, Brugada said she was confident her record as mayor of Iztapalapa would help her win Mexico City.

"This city is progressive. This city has a heart of the left," she said.

According to Gustavo Urbina, an expert at El Colegio de Mexico, the capital has become "one of the most important battlegrounds" for politicians.

As well as being home to so many voters, it offers "an enormous slice of the pie in terms of economic resources," he said.