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Nuño de Guzman: Spain’s bad boy in Mexico

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Guzman was said to be "the most depraved man" in colonial Mexico. Photo by Bob Schulman.

This is a story for vacationers heading to the golden sands of Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo and other spots on the Mexican Riviera. It will give you a little history of the Spanish conquest of western Mexico – and perhaps some interesting nuggets to share with other tourists during your stay.

Chances are you've heard of Hernan Cortes, the great Spanish conquistador who – with just 500 soldiers – snatched the country away from the powerful Aztec emperor Moctezuma in 1521. But you likely never heard of Nuño de Guzman, one of Cortes’ top captains. Maybe Cortes had a better pr man, but Guzman was almost as big a conquistador, having led the invasion of the better part of western Mexico (and who for a while served as governor of a couple of states).

Some historians say Guzman’s westward charge was ordered by Cortes as a way as getting rid of him (Spain's King Charles had sent Guzman – his buddy and the son of a big wheel in the Inquisition – to Mexico to keep an eye on Cortes).

So off Guzman went with an army of 10,000 soldiers. Having earlier gained a reputation for cruelty along Mexico’s Gulf Coast – from which he exported Indian slaves to the Caribbean before the African trade got into full swing -- his westward thrust was to give him an even bloodier rep along the Pacific. Soon to find out why Guzman was known as “the butcher” were villagers in a region stretching from Sinaloa down to Nayarit, Jalisco, Colima, Michoacan and Guerrero – the home states of such modern-day beach resorts as Mazatlan, the Riviera Nayarit, Puerto Vallarta, Careyas, Manzanillo and Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, among others.

Historians note Guzman took some time off from slaughtering Indians in the coastal states to found the big inland city of Guadalajara (which he named after the city in Spain where he was born) and Culiacan (the capital of Sinaloa and today the home of another well-known Guzman, unrelated to Nuño).

He was so brutal, according to author Jaime Capulli, that the top chronicler of the era had this to say about him: “In all the provinces of New Spain (Mexico) there is no other man more foul and evil than (Guzman).” Another report said Guzman “was the most depraved man to ever set foot in New Spain.” Even his biographer charged him with “cruelty of the highest order, ambition without limit and great immorality.”

It took a while, but King Charles finally got fed up with his man in Mexico (possibly with some urging by Cortes and church heavyweights Juan de Zumarraga and Vasco de Quiroga). Guzman was arrested in 1536, held in prison for a couple of years, put on trial – where de Quiroga was one of the judges -- and then shipped back to Spain in chains. He died in 1558, a broken man.