Mexico’s Re-colonization: Unrestrained Violence, Rule of Law and the Creation of a New Order

Ivonne del Valle
University of California, Berkeley

Volume 7, 2015

…que no de estas piezas y remiendos con que se atapa un agujero y se hacen ciento, como son estas piezas y remiendos de leyes y ordenanzas, que ordenando nunca acaban de ordenar cosa que baste; antes por atapar un agujero, hacen ciento y por deshacer una gotera hacen cuatro, y por no acertar bien una vez en el camino y errarlo, rodean y le andan muchas veces y nunca le acaban de andar ni llegar a la posada ni reposo que desean; y por cortar un inconveniente nacen siete o ciento, como cabezas de hidra.

—Vasco de Quiroga, Información en derecho, 1535 (201)

In the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, the doubly nefarious site in Tlatelolco where the last battles of conquest were fought and where the 1968 student massacre took place, several monuments commemorate the events. The plaque referring to the fall of the so-called Aztec empire bears the following inscription: “El 13 de agosto de 1521 heroicamente defendido por Cuauhtémoc, cayó Tlatelolco en poder de Hernán Cortés. No fue triunfo, ni derrota. Fue el doloroso nacimiento del pueblo mestizo que es el México de hoy.” Leaving aside the supposed existence of a “mestizo” México, and the ambivalent tone of these sentences (is the anonymous voice stating a fact? is it struggling with it?), what interests me is the ominous, yet oddly correct, reading of 1521. Ominous because one would expect that the end of a war would be clearly demarcated: that the two sides would be easily identifiable, with one side victorious, the other one vanquished, and the balance of power settled. But if the conclusion of this war “[n]o fue triunfo, ni derrota,” what was it then? What can ensue after an end that is neither?

The ambivalence opens the future to uneasy, fraught interactions whose resolution is postponed—as if in their striving to achieve an outcome the Spaniards and their allies were forced to continue on their winning path, and the fall of Tlatelolco were to drag on indefinitely, forever stumbling, but never quite down.[1] This reading is shared by Inga Clendinnen who concludes her superb analysis of the conquest of Mexico by emphasizing “the bleakness of the outlook” once the contenders had gotten to know each other well—with one side deciding, precisely because of this knowledge, not to surrender, regardless of the circumstances, and the other one pressing on and on, notwithstanding the costs (94).[2]

In this essay, I will first examine what the Mexicas and their allies might have intuited in Cortés’s determination to take their city and force them into servitude.[3] Cortés’s war and the exploitation of labor the conquest brought forth, later seen in Toribio de Benavente Motolinia’s Historia de los Indios de la Nueva España, belong to sixteenth-century events establishing the groundwork for what we might euphemistically call a new international order. This foundation materializes through a relationship between violence and law of immense consequences extending through time to contemporary Mexico, and perhaps to the whole of our contemporary world. In the latter part of this essay, I will analyze the fluctuating ways in which Bartolomé de las Casas rejected the new order established by Spain. Although Las Casas was one of the few Europeans who discerned in the history he witnessed what the new world order would be like, his work nevertheless had to contend with the limits of the institutions and the people who could have corrected or altogether reversed it, undone it. It is his fighting at the very margins of what was possible in his own world, and his character as a witness to a new one, that makes his work very relevant today, at a moment in which institutional channels once again exhibit the important limitations they represent to the demands for justice. Las Casas’s writings, oscillating between an exigency for radical politics and the observance of the rule of law, point to the uncanny paradoxes also faced by people who in recent years and from diverse perspectives have undertaken a general critique of the current Mexican situation.

Violence and Law

To explain what the world order formed through conquest and colonization has to say about contemporary Mexico and the tense relationship between violence and law there (see the Introduction to this issue), a long detour into what these concepts meant for Europe—via the exploits of some conquistadors and the seigniorial class that followed in their wake—is necessary. For this purpose I will refer to two series of scenes. The first instances have to do with the Hernán Cortés of the Tercera carta de relación who, in a gesture he constantly repeats while recounting the siege of Tenochtitlan, writes about himself not only as a soldier in charge of military strategy, but also as a judge, or a God of sorts, who determines guilt and punishment for anyone who resists fate—fate understood here as the destiny implied by the absolute demands of the Requerimiento.[4]

This is important because Cortés is writing nine months after the events he describes (the letter is signed in May 1522), that is, when he had already had time to reflect upon what he was going to include, and how to present it, in the dispatch officially announcing to Charles V his new kingdom and his new subjects. The Spanish captain’s rhetorical abilities have long been recognized (see, for example, Clendinnen and Pastor). Indeed, although he writes at what is still a very early moment in the debates on the rights of Spain to conquer, and in the discussions of the concepts that should be used to describe what was happening in the Indies, he knows quite well not to say that his was a conquest, but a war determined by just causes and reasons, a necessary response to the “gran traición” of the Mexicas (316-17). After the war is over, instead of writing of an expansion of the military campaign, he is again careful to indicate that he gave orders to continue the “gobernación y pacificación destas partes,” which would have been the appropriate terms to use (428).

Cortés has no qualms about stating time and again how he has pardoned or still needs to punish one community or another. Of the people of Yautepec he says, for example, “los recibí de buena voluntad porque en ellos se había hecho ya buen castigo” (354). For their part, the people of Cuernavaca are likewise pardoned because they had understood, he says, that by allowing the Spanish to burn and destroy their homes and fields “satisfacían sus culpas” (355). His are extraordinary powers, and the words Cortés utilizes to refer to them point to the contamination of the legal and military spheres by the sacred. The fate of entire villages depended solely on Cortés’s will either to determine their guilt and the form of their expiation and punishment, or to grant them pardon.

In Cortés’s language, his violence preserved the law (“guerra justa”), but since the law under which these punishments made sense was not the law of the Indians he was fighting against, it is also a case of what Walter Benjamin would call lawmaking violence, that is, a violence imposing a new regime, rather than maintaining a previous one (240). Nevertheless, and in spite of Cortés’s stated resolve to serve the king and the Christian faith (316), he was in the new territories illegally, which raises the question of how someone maneuvering without the law could enact and extend it. Of course, there is also the problem of the difference between what he says he’s doing (“guerra justa”) and what he knows he’s doing (namely, carrying out a conquest for which there were and there are no laws available), but that is another matter. Or perhaps not. As Bartolomé de las Casas saw it, that was precisely the problem—that the system itself allowed for the proliferation of people who, like Cortés, were forgetful of this difference.

I will address Las Casas’s objections to this mystifying entanglement of violence and law in the next section, but first I’d like to indicate two factors that make these politico-religious attributes of Cortés’s discourse even more extraordinary. On the one hand, and since each one of the many conquistadors personified and enacted them, their powers (sovereignty) over life and death were geographically and chronologically expanded throughout the continent in every campaign of conquest that took place. On the other, once war was over, the possibilities opened up by the granting of pardon clearly reflected the meaning of the Requerimiento’s summons. If in one direction there was destruction and death (punishment), in another, there was submission (expiation). There is no confusion about this in Cortés. If Indians deserving punishment were enemies, and those who had been exonerated, or immediately accepted his alliance, “friends,” as he calls them, this friendship was nothing but subjecthood. As he states referring to two provinces near Veracruz:

Y por asegurar aquel camino y hacer en ellos algún castigo si no quisiesen venir de paz, despaché un capitán…y con gente de nuestros amigos, al cual encargué mucho y mandé de parte de Vuestra Majestad que requiriese a los naturales de aquellas provincias que viniesen de paz a se dar por vasallos.

(313, emphasis added)

Resisting, questioning the Requerimiento, meant at least partial destruction (“algún castigo”); and whether friendship resulted from a community’s immediate consent to Cortés’s demand or followed the expiation of their guilt, ultimately it always meant servitude:

Dende a cuatro días que el alguacil mayor vino de la provincia de Matalcingo, los señores de ella y de Marinalco y de la provincia de Cuiscon, que es grande y mucha cosa y estaban también rebelados, vinieron a nuestro real y pidieron perdón de lo pasado y ofresciéronse de servir muy bien, y ansí lo ficieron y han fecho hasta agora.

(406, emphasis added)

Though in the circumstances in which he found himself, Cortés might at first have been the instrument of the Tlaxcaltecans’ and others’ revenge over the Mexicas, ultimately—and very soon afterwards, as the quote above demonstrates—all of these allied groups were working for the Spanish.[5]

In a sense, unless they died fighting against the Spaniards, for the Indians in the sixteenth century there was no difference between friend and enemy. Given that everyone had to serve, whether willingly or by force, all were destined to become some form of labor, military or otherwise. This is what helps explain the refusal of the Mexicas to surrender despite the fact that their situation, as narrated by Cortés himself, was beyond desperate.[6] According to Clendinnen, the Indians of Tenochtitlan well understood the meaning of Cortés’s absolute resolve to take the city. It was clear to all of them that in order to achieve his goal he was destroying what he so much wanted.[7] This resoluteness ran contrary to Cortés’s growing uneasiness with the brutality of the campaign—a discomfort reflected in multiple places in his letter in spite of his rhetorical mastery:

Viendo que éstos de la cibdad estaban rebeldes y mostraban tanta determinación de morir o defenderse, colegí dello dos cosas: la una que habíamos de haber poca o ninguna riqueza de la que nos habían tomado; y la otra que daban ocasión y nos forzaban a que totalmente los destruyésemos. Y desta postrera tenía más sentimiento y me pesaba en el alma…Y aunque a mí me pesó mucho dello [the burning of some of the best houses in the main square], porque a ellos les pesaba mucho más determiné de las quemar.

(384, emphasis added)

And so, he persisted, as did the Mexicas. Two unconditional determinations, a zero sum game that nevertheless ended not in triumph, not in defeat. Thus, we return to the commemorative plaque in Tlatelolco and see that historically this conclusion makes sense: Cuauhtémoc did not surrender—he was apprehended—and no treaty, no formal staging of a capitulation, was ever performed, even though Cortés had imagined and prepared the stage for this several times before. This absence is exceptional. It demonstrates that in the case of Mexico in 1521 there could not be any recognition of a new order. As Benjamin remarked:

…even—or, rather, precisely—in primitive conditions that scarcely know the beginnings of constitutional relations, and even in cases in which the victor has established himself in invulnerable possession, a peace ceremony is entirely necessary. Indeed, the word “peace,” in the sense in which it is the correlative of the word “war”… denotes this a priori, necessary sanctioning, regardless of all other legal conditions, of every victory. This sanction consists precisely in recognizing the new conditions of the new “law.”

(“Critique” 240, emphasis added)

In his classical study of war, Carl Von Clausewitz states that “[i]f our opponent is to be made to comply with our will, we must place him in a position which is more oppressive to him than the sacrifice which we demand” (104). Cortés thought the Mexicas had already been forced to this breaking point many days earlier, and yet, incomprehensibly, they continued to resist. This suggests they believed the sacrifice that would be demanded of them after the war would be worse than their excruciating resistance. This is perhaps because better than anyone else around them, they could see the nature of what we now call a colonial system. One could interpret their obstinacy as the arrogance of one empire facing another, but I’d like to propose a different possibility. I take the Mexicas’ “unnatural” determination to resist (the title of Clendinnen’s article and a leitmotif Cortés used in his letter to refer to the Indians’ cruelty) as a critique of what was to follow. Better to hold on—to at least enjoy the fleeting respect and dignity conceded by the Spaniards to fierce, warring enemies—than to sink into the degradation to which the new master would relegate the Indians, once the dice were cast.

If according to Carl Schmitt the political terrain is founded on the distinction between friend and enemy (The Concept 26), the case of the colonies reminds us that there are spaces in which the difference between friend and enemy no longer obtains. It might have even been that after the war (and even during it), Indians did not see themselves fitting into any of these categories. And although it is the case that there existed an indigenous elite whose members perhaps considered themselves something closer to what we could call “friends” of the Spaniards, this is not how Cortés, and probably most Spaniards, saw them. A colonial situation points to a muddled terrain in which people are converted into labor, undeserving of the attention and dignity conferred upon the enemy one must know, respect and fight against. In this light, a colonial situation makes the enemy position a position to strive for. As for Cortés, as we have seen, the breaking of all laws—the laws that do not allow conquest, and even the laws that naming it otherwise sanction it (“guerra justa”)—brought about an absolute sovereignty that went unchallenged by the king, who was not going to reject the unexpected new kingdom and its riches. As we will see, for the Indians, it meant the gradual diluting of the distinction between friend/enemy as the murkier framework of the colonial system was instituted.

The Wrath of God

Related to the fate of the Indians implicit in the Requerimiento, and to the elision of the friend/enemy distinction once the war was over, the second series of passages I’d like to examine comes from Motolinia’s Historia de los Indios de la Nueva España. In the first pages of Motolinia’s text the Indians go from death in war to extenuating labor almost without transition. And whereas Cortés’s timid vacillations (should he carry on and raze everything, kill everyone? Or should he stop and wait to see if the Mexicas yielded?) are limited to the passages referring to the culminating moments of the siege, the discontinuity that violence brought to providential and human history figures in the very structure of Motolinia’s book.

The first break occurs in the textual reenactment of the enormous disparity between Motolinia’s expectations and reality. The Historia commences by narrating how the highly symbolic number of 12 Franciscans was sent to the new lands on the auspicious date commemorating the conversion of St. Paul; it thereby frames the content of the ensuing chapters with the promise of the Christian Parousia. However, this lofty mission must be abruptly abandoned. “Hirió Dios y castigó esta tierra,” Motolinia somberly indicates in the next paragraph, in a sudden displacement of the initial promise by discordant events. Contrary to Cortés, who in spite of his professed religiosity does not presume the violence of war to be anything but a secular, military endeavor (more than a voluntary personification of God’s power, the contamination by the sacred of his privileges as judge is inherent to the concepts he uses), Motolinia sees in the extreme situation he witnesses something unambiguously eschatological. Nothing other than God’s wrath could produce the spectacle Motolinia refers to as the ten plagues.[8]

If in the Old Testament the plagues serve to express God’s condemnation of Egypt’s enslavement of the Israelites, here they function as a punishment of unknown causes that nevertheless kills and enslaves Indians. Of these plagues, one of them is natural and precedes the conquest (smallpox). The majority are related to life after pardon, that is, to the life Cortés and other conquistadors granted Indians after the war. Slavery, repartimiento, the mines, the rebuilding of the city, tribute, forms of labor and the reproduction of labor—all are realities that produce an excess of death and a tableau of life that momentarily confuse the Franciscan. One example suffices:

La novena plaga fue el servicio de las minas, a las cuales iban de sesenta leguas y más a llevar mantenimientos los indios cargados; y la comida que para sí mismos llevaban, a unos se les acababa en llegando a las minas, a otros en el camino de vuelta antes de su casa, a otros detenían los mineros algunos días para que les ayudasen a descopetar; o los ocupaban en hacer casas y servirse de ellos, adonde acabada la comida, o se moría allá en las minas, o por el camino, porque dinero no los tenían para comprarlos, ni había quién se la diese. Otros volvían tales, que luego se morían, y de éstos y de los que murieron en las minas fue tanto el hedor que causó pestilencia, en especial en las minas de Guaxaca, en las cuales media legua a la redonda y mucha parte del camino, apenas se podía pisar sino sobre hombres muertos o sobre huesos; y eran tantas las aves y cuervos que venían a comer sobre los cuerpos, que hacían gran sombra al sol, por lo cual se despoblaron muchos pueblos, así del camino como de los de la comarca.


Not only did the Indians have to perform all the work, they also had to provide the materials for it and for their own sustenance (as was the case in all the labor they carried out). These abuses and the unending accumulation of corpses represent a momentous break in the providential framework Motolinia gives to his narration, but nonetheless he has to incorporate this break as meaningful history. And he does. In the form of an obscure hiatus, this and the other nine similar passages (ten plagues) represent God’s mysterious intervention in the Americas. After this divine and thorough purging, life can be reorganized anew. Nevertheless, Motolinia must confront yet more discord.

He begins his second chapter with another promising note that picks up from the catastrophe in order to alleviate it:

Quedó tan destruida la tierra…que quedaron muchas casas yermas del todo, y en ninguna hubo que no cupiese parte del dolor…lo cual duró muchos años; y para poner remedio a tan grandes males, los frailes se encomendaron a la Sacratísima Virgen María, norte y guía de los perdidos y consuelo de los atribulados, y juntamente con esto tomaron por capitán y caudillo al glorioso San Miguel, al cual con San Gabriel, y a todos los ángeles, decían cada lunes una misa cantada.


Motolinia then proposes a new beginning aided by this most excellent help, which in his view was particularly appropriate for those “lost” in having to confront “great evils.” If divine violence had not allowed him to continue with his narration of the evangelizing mission of the 12 Franciscans, a task he has to postpone in order to first address unwieldy events, this time the Indians’ paganism and the Spaniards’ greed delay him once more. Even when God had already resolved part of the problem by wiping out many of the Indians’ former priests with the plagues he had sent (21), Indians were still bent on their old ways. But more than this, Motolinia identifies the following as the main problem: “Si alguno preguntase qué ha sido la causa de tantos males, yo diría que la codicia . . . Oh, cuántos por esta negra codicia desordenada del oro de esta tierra están quemándose en el infierno” (23). Multiple obstacles interrupt the process of evangelization, which once it takes hold and moves forward, must do so with much lower expectations than those promised by the portentous signs represented by the sending of 12 evangelizers on the day of St. Paul’s conversion. Perhaps the Parousia was not near after all, since as the chapters after those describing the devastation seem to suggest, evangelizers had to be satisfied with helping the Indians learn how to write, speak Latin, sing, bind books, draw (Motolinia, see chapter 12 in particular).

The teachings of the Franciscans were conceivably giving back to the Indians a human, Christian face that would prevent the other Spaniards from continuing to write their victories over them (“dábanles por aquellos rostros tantos letreros, demás del principal hierro del rey, tanto que toda la cara traían escrita, porque de cuantos era comprado y vendido llevaba letreros,” 17). After experiencing the most brutal of punishments, the Indians had to be accorded a recognizable place, one where they were neither friends nor enemies, nor pure labor on which ownership could be inscribed as if branded on cattle. The nakedness to which Cortés’s pardon had destined them—as service, tribute—had to be foregone in order to build a parallel, better system which, without denying the need to use them as a labor force, would grant them better treatment.

But even in spite of their differences, the texts of the soldier and the friar have two things in common: their recognition of catastrophe, and their capacity to continue it. In Cortés’s case, although it is evident that the turn of the events disturbed him, it was imperative to carry on: “No sabía que medios tener,” he says again and again, “para ganar la ciudad sin al mismo tiempo tener que destruirla junto con sus habitantes” (407). As if wanting the king to whom he was writing to acknowledge but excuse the devastation he had just described (perhaps even in order to forget it himself), immediately after saying the war is over, Cortés begins to recount the gold, slaves, and the wealth obtained (428). Motolinia, on the other hand, was not in the New World for gold; in spite of the calamities he witnessed, he had to continue in the name of evangelization. That is why he writes to oppose Las Casas’s suggestion that all Spaniards should leave the Indies.

We might think that Motolinia was similar to Benjamin’s angel of history, who sees the piling of wreckage upon wreckage but cannot stop to put things back together (“Theses” 257-58). Except that unlike Benjamin’s angel, Motolinia, like Cortés before him, adopts a “let’s move on” attitude that ultimately downplays the horrors he documents. A closer parallel to the angel of history would be Las Casas, who seems to call out for an arresting of time, a halting of a history that could not, or must not, continue without someone taking responsibility for what had been done and at a minimum trying to make whole all that in his view would, in any case, remain forever torn asunder.

A General Critique of the New World Order

If Saint Augustine’s City of God (426 AD), written in the wake of the Nordic invasions of Rome, inaugurates an era (the Christianization and Romanization of barbarian groups in what is to become Medieval Europe), Las Casas’s Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (1542), which describes Europe’s invasion of the New World, closes it and marks the beginning of a new one. Nevertheless, since Las Casas did not have the privilege our historical perspective grants us, he could not have known this; nor could he have known that in the future his writings could be used, as I’m doing here, to bear witness to a global epochal change. Yet he knew that something extraordinary was taking place in the New World, and everywhere else because of it, so much so that he dedicated many years of his life to opposing the forces driving this change. Seen in this light, the Brevísima and Las Casas’s work in general is one of the first critiques of the violence and the greed from which modernity and capitalism would emerge, though not yet under those names.

Without being able to identify or comprehend the future direction of what he was witnessing, but aware that from such foundations nothing good could emerge, his work fluctuated between reformist projects that would adhere to the rule of law and radical proposals rejecting the colonial enterprise tout court. It was probably his frustration with his inability to end colonial abuses that explains his increasing radicalization and his ironic and emotional outbursts of denunciations and threats of unforeseen and fantastic retribution (from the Indians themselves, from God).[9] Even though his work did not accomplish much, as has been suggested (Castro 5), it is worthwhile to examine the complexity of the situation he faced, because it uncannily reflects the crisis of contemporary Mexico with its proliferation of sovereign figures and a “rule of law” that is emphatically the opposite of legality.

There are hardly any references to Las Casas in The Nomos of the Earth, the book in which Carl Schmitt discussed how the European “immense appropriation,” the “crude seizures of land” in the New World, made possible a Eurocentric international order (87). As Schmitt put it, the lines dividing the Earth in general, and Europe from the New World in particular, bracketed the areas in which law and morality applied from the spaces in which they were optional or irrelevant. He quotes, for example, Pascal’s bafflement as to the fact that, as Schmitt indicates, “in certain areas Christian princes and peoples had agreed to disregard the distinction between justice and injustice” (95). This is precisely what Las Casas was against. His work would have provided substantial material to support the German jurist’s arguments about how the New World was rendered a space free of ethical constraints for European expansion, but also a strong counter-argument to Schmitt’s celebration of these events.

It was not only that Las Casas rejected the way evangelization was being carried out, as has been long recognized;[10] for him everything the Spaniards were doing in the New World was wrong, so much so that it is possible to say that the accretion of their crimes and transgressions occluded the religious sphere to the point of making him minimize the idea of a correct Christianization—which gradually became a secondary, unessential goal. First and foremost it was important to stop what was happening. What troubled Las Casas was the situation described in the previous sections of this essay: the fact that violence was converted into the foundation of law (that this violence was excessive and more than slightly aberrant in its exhibition of cruelty, as he and many others indicated, is something that made it worse).[11] That is, Spain’s supposed sovereignty over the Indies was being constructed through blatantly illegal means: “Este título y señorío no se funda entrando en aquellas tierras, y gentes, robando y matando, y tiranizando con color de predicar la fe,” as he stated it in his debate with Ginés de Sepúlveda (Aquí 90).

The unprecedented scale of this aggression, which expanded year after year throughout vast territories that were being laid to waste and, above all, the numerous populations being massacred, enslaved, or exploited could not and should not have been justified or understood by anyone.[12] Ironically, such rationalization was exactly what some of Spain’s most brilliant minds were doing (Francisco de Vitoria, one of Las Casas’s fellow Dominicans, for example). But this made no sense to Las Casas because the world thus created—in which, like Cortés, men could wield extreme powers over vast populations deprived of every right—was the product of unbridled greed, as Motolinia and many others conceded.

If greed—which for Las Casas knew no limits and stopped at nothing (“más insanable [vicio] que el de la lascivia, y por consiguiente que otro ninguno,” “Entre” 174)—was allowed to reign freely in the New World, as indeed it did, then no moral or political considerations mattered anymore: “La codicia del avaro es infinita…y el tal por cumplir con ella está dispuesto a hacer traiciones, fraudes, mentiras, calumnias, perjuros, violencias, hurtos, rapiñas, inhumanidades y muchos crímenes” (“Entre” 175).[13] That is why, Las Casas pointed out, greed should be considered an incurable disease, the remedy for which was something only the king could provide, by not allowing anyone afflicted with it (all of the Spaniards, as he insists) to go to the New World.

A vuestra Majestad suplicamos sea servido de con atención entender lo que aquí inferimos, y decimos así, que pues todos los que pasan a las Indias son hombres pobres, e codiciosos, y no los mueva ir allá otro fin sino sola codicia, y el ansia de salir no solamente de pobreza; pero de ser ricos, y no como quiera ricos, sino con más opulencia ricos, que en los tiempos pasados nadie pudo tanta riqueza ser en el mundo posible pensar, ni soñar…especialmente por la facilidad que hay de haberlas.

(“Entre” 176, emphasis added)

Simply put, Las Casas’s efforts were against the general construction of the Indies as what Schmitt called a space beyond the law from which any Spaniard could take anything, including its people, and use it as he saw fit,[14] “como si no hubiese Dios ni Rey” (“Entre” 179) in order to accumulate unprecedented wealth.

That is why, contrary to the thrust of Cortés or Motolinia—who exhibit gold or Christian Indians emerging from catastrophe as justification for the conquest—Las Casas forces both himself and his readers to participate in a double act which he qualifies as “impossible”: describing “los estragos y muertes” in their totality, and having to listen to them (Brevísima 111). As if history’s sole task from then on, and until this demand were met, was to force a frontal examination of what was being done as well as a concerted and real attempt at reparation, even if impossible by the time he was writing, Las Casas does not seem to see any possibility of moving beyond.

Lewis Hanke, who was one of the foremost authorities on the debates inspired by the work of Las Casas and others, and whose ideas continue to frame how these debates are understood, refers to them as “the struggle for justice” in the conquest of the Americas. Even if we consider, as Las Casas did, that in such a situation there is no possible justice (as he insists time and again in the Brevísima, the wrongs done were infinite and beyond repair—the Indies had been destroyed),[15] Hanke is right: if justice were possible, Las Casas was one of those who sought it. And along with him the thousands of Indians who fought against the irrationality of the Requerimiento, the document that as Las Casas ironically remarked, hastily explained the unexpected news that there was only one true God, and that because of Him a new order and new king were being imposed (Brevísima 96). Las Casas can be thought of as a contra-Vitoria and all the other organic intellectuals of empire, that is, as someone who critiqued and refused to accept what was occurring, to advance beyond the threshold of the international order thus begun.

As Motolinia in his description of the plagues devastating the inhabitants of New Spain in the sixteenth century demonstrated, the system the colonies gave rise to entailed, rather than a distinction between punishment (death) and pardon (life), their contiguity. As Las Casas stated, “Donde han cesado de matar con espadas…mátanlos con servicios personales y otras vejaciones injustas e intolerables su poco a poco” (Brevísima 177). In this sense, and unless one were willing to concede that political participation necessitated the adoption of one of these positions, Schmitt’s definition of the political constrained to the binary friend/enemy will always be insufficient. As we saw, once war was over these categories dissolved in order to proceed to the mass conversion of a population into matter for consumption. Just as in Motolinia, in the pages of Brevísima the Indians were freely “consumed” by anyone and everyone, in a multiplicity of ways that echo the flexibility of a verb which denotes employment and use, but also waste, destruction, annihilation. In one of the many instances where Las Casas uses this concept, he says for example that on the island of Trinidad, the diving required for obtaining pearls “ha acabado de consumir a todos los indios lucayos” (Brevísima 145). In another one, referring to the massive killings that took place in Guatemala, he states “[e]stuvieron en estas carnicerías tan inhumanas cerca de siete años, desde el año de veinte y cuatro hasta el año de treinta o treinta y uno: júzguese aquí cuánto sería el número de la gente que consumirían” (Brevísima 118). Be it through direct death, daily labor, or the dispossession of their means of subsistence, in one way or another this consumption was the basis of an economy of which haste was the second defining characteristic.[16]

Karl Marx, quoting T.J. Dunning, reminded his readers that the possibility of multiplying profits a hundredfold would lead anyone to “trample all human laws,” which explained why capital, as Marx concluded, came “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with dirt and blood” (926). The work of Las Casas and Motolinia recalls this image, for they depict the vertiginous rhythm of a violence that imprinted a new direction on history and produced a new economic system, one which owed everything to the drive to “henchirse de riquezas en muy breves días…” a state which, according to Las Casas, could not be achieved “sino con perdición y matanzas y robos y disminución de los indios” (Brevísima 78, 156). According to Hanke this form of “unchecked exploitation,” as he calls it, lasted for only two decades (20). Yet we know it was not so, because each new seizure of land and slaves/laborers/tributaries had the capacity to newly put into action the same old mechanisms, as Las Casas remarked time and again.

Within or Without Law?

Las Casas’s attempts to seek solutions to a situation that should not have been possible led him to come up against the limits and the paradoxes of power characteristic of his age, but also to proposals that in his time had little effect and seem to still await a constellation of thought and praxis to bring their possibilities to realization. The difficulty of undoing the system initiated in this way resided partly in the fact that each conquest, even though it was carried out breaking all laws, was the condition of possibility of the monarch’s expanding sovereignty. As Las Casas remarked toward the end of his life,

Como siempre faltó autoridad del Príncipe, y causa justa para mover guerra a los indios inocentes que estaban en sus tierras y casas seguros, e pacíficos: afirmamos que fueron, son y serán siempre (no habiendo causa nueva) nulas y de ningún valor de derecho, injustas, inicuas, tiránicas y por todas las leyes condenadas, desde que las Indias se descubrieron hasta hoy en ellas las conquistas.

(Treinta 58)

Because morality and legality dictated that the king should not have been able to order those campaigns against people who had neither attacked nor caused any harm to the Spaniards, everything people like Cortés had done remained outside every legal regime; it was illegitimate violence. Yet the king’s authority was grounded and expanded in the New World by people like Cortés. Much as happens today when Mexican Presidents claim to be fighting the growing number of drug lords-sovereigns controlling territories that should be under the President’s jurisdiction (territories like those Cortés, Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán, and many others illegally controlled because they were supposed to be under the King’s jurisdiction), when in fact, “legitimate” rule is deeply intertwined with the uncontrollable activity of people outside the law. Was the King of Spain going to reject the wealth (which probably personally benefitted him) unlawfully produced by his unmanageable subjects? As if he were unaware of the king’s conflict of interest, Las Casas had no other recourse than to pretend there was still a legal regime whose jurisdiction he could claim. Another possibility, though not directly available to Las Casas, were the only wars waged lawfully in the New World—those of the Indians repelling the Spaniards’ aggression. As he had said, “[y] sé por cierta e infalible ciencia que los indios siempre tuvieron justísima guerra contra los cristianos, y los cristianos una ni ninguna tuvieron justa contra los indios” (Brevísima 88).

It is also worth noticing that Las Casas was also constructing and appealing to what we might call public opinion. In many instances throughout his work he makes statements asking people in general to consider and judge what he has just said, as in the following case, in which he asks his readers to put themselves in the place of the Indians who had just heard the news of the Requerimiento: “Considérese por los cristianos y que saben algo de Dios, y de razón, y aun de la leyes humanas, qué tales pueden parar los corazones de cualquier gente…las nuevas que les dijeran así de súpito” (Brevísima 112). But if public opinion can only do so much today (see the Introduction to this issue), it could have achieved much less in the sixteenth century. That is why Las Casas had to keep appealing to the king’s conscience or shame, something the Dominican continued until the end, although with growing irony and frustration. As he corrosively reminds Charles V in the Brevísima, years before he had already delivered to the monarch the documents explaining the unsustainable situation, but it was possible that given his duties, he had either not read them or had already forgotten their content (72-73). Be it as it may, in the Indies, Las Casas tells Charles V, he had not been sufficiently “powerful” to prevent the crimes that continued unabated (176-77).

The worst part was that this series of crimes was soon being turned into legislation. “Not every invasion or temporary occupation is a land-appropriation that founds an order,” said Schmitt, and he added that “mere acts of violence . . . quickly destroy themselves” (The Nomos 80, 82). According to him the Spanish conquests during the sixteenth century belonged to the first category because it had established a new nomos of the Earth.[17] The low- and high-intensity wars that many Mexicans currently endure serve exactly the same purpose: the radicalization and legitimization of a deeply exploitative economic and political order. For Las Casas, from such an illegal origin—the usurpation of dominion over territories and sovereign peoples—there could only arise a body of laws that was equally illegal. The fundamental principle upon which Las Casas establishes the obligation to restitute the territories and riches illegally expropriated from the Indies is sovereignty: “Todos los infieles,” he says “de cualquiera secta o religión que fueren, o por cualquier pecado que tengan…justamente tienen y poseen señorío sobre sus cosas” and therefore “ningún rey, ni emperador, ni la Iglesia” has any jurisdiction over other kingdoms without direct authorization and consent from their inhabitants (Tratado 486, 489-90). In this sense, every Spanish law implied not the search for justice, but simply the rationalization of plunder. As if this were not enough, not even the legislation administering exploitation in smaller “dosages” was obeyed, as Las Casas assures us in 1552 regarding the new laws promulgated in 1542 (Brevísima 175-77).

In other words, the problem was not only that the paralysis and self-interest of the only institutions and people able to address the situation (the king and his court) produced the normalization of what we might call impunity, but also that the institutions that should at least prevent the most abject crimes turned a blind eye to these events or were unwilling to act upon them. As Yuri Herrera’s essay in this issue shows, exemption from the law is easily exploited by those who can benefit from it. And in a situation in which everything is illegal, for the king to punish an individual conquistador would have been considered a political decision, not a measure of justice: only if the conquistadors obstructed the king’s designs did their acts—similar to those of thousands of others—become, suddenly, illegal. The arbitrariness implicit in this selective application of the law further weakened the rule of law.[18]

With this in mind, it is worthwhile to consider the meaning of what Hanke refers to as Spanish “legal formalism” (6). In the conquest of the Americas, law appears to be devoid of any substance whatsoever, a pure form which accomplished and fulfilled itself in its basic formulation, in the act of being written, read, declared, and archived, without any need for compliance or any correspondence to reality. Law was form—compilations, notaries, manifestos, trials—and nothing else. That is why, as if by an act of magic, suddenly and without any reasonable or logical explanation, the reading of the Requerimiento was meant to transform violence, theft, dispossession into a legal order—that of the only God, the pope, the king, etc. Ironically, as Schmitt indicated in the quote above, the colonial system did indeed inaugurate an order. Time took care of sweeping its illegal origins, so to speak, under the carpet.

In the pre-history of this system, and because legislation did not even minimally prevent extreme abuses, acts of personal “conversion,” as Hanke indirectly suggests—like that of a Las Casas who “took steps to change his way of life” (Hanke 21)—were the only way to lessen the disaster. However, as the catastrophe of the conquest and current events in Mexico show, this was not and is not sufficient. As Las Casas knew too well, it was not about “personal conversion” and not about personal morality or ethics—as it is not about the calls by contemporary Mexicans for a self-transformation that involves the sweeping of streets and paying of taxes, since this would not solve a crisis that even when it, in important ways, touches on the personal, is fundamentally structural, institutional. A thorough and real legal system had to be in place in order not to depend on the good will of moral people—a situation that again resembles that of contemporary Mexico. As has been noticed, in the Brevísima Las Casas chooses not to identify the conquistadors whose crimes he denounces, though he could have easily done so: he and everyone else involved in the Indies knew those names well. This absence is explained by the fact that the Dominican is interested in a general critique of the system (Stone 68): a system which allowed for immoral people to thrive, but whose stakes were higher and whose problems greater than personal morality. It was about implanting a general political and legal system, a true order in which regardless of people’s inclinations, crimes against humanity (that is what Las Casas calls the conquistadors’ acts) would not be allowed.

The reconfiguration of power that Las Casas imagined could solve this complex situation had multiple layers; nevertheless, all of them seemed to depend on the universality of political rights. That is to say, conquest and violence would be disavowed in the name of an equal degree of sovereignty for each and every group of people. He made no distinction among the different indigenous groups, or between the indigenous groups and Europeans. In his pages there are no savages, no barbarians in need of reform or transformation, no worlds lagging behind a Europe they had to resemble. While this principle of equality ought to rule what we might call international relationships, it also applied on another level: this sovereignty wholly depended on the people themselves, who had a right to choose and depose their rulers. In this bounded world where each people, each territory, had its own independent laws, upon which no other people could claim any right to intervene, there is nonetheless an anomaly—that of the hostes of humanity, a recurrent legal concept in Las Casas’s work: “aquellos hostes públicos, y capitales enemigos del linaje humano,” as he says, for example, in the Brevísima (105). The only human beings with no rights, political or otherwise, were those whose hubristic behavior had deprived them of their nationality—they were everyone’s enemies—but whose own nation was nonetheless responsible to answer for their crimes in one way or another. These people, whose hatred for humanity (whether Indian or not) placed them on another plane, were the only ones who had parted ways with the human.

This is a very interesting concept because with such a designation Las Casas is pointing to the fact that there did not exist any real difference between those dedicated to plunder on the oceans and those who raided on land. Amedeo Policante has shown how pirates and privateers were not only tolerated, but even considered necessary for the expansion of commerce in the early modern period and until the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. In the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, says Policante, “the period of savage primitive accumulation and anomic warfare between the European empires for the spoils of the American continent was brought to a halt” in order to impose “the minimum of law and order on the oceans of the world, making them safe for global processes of capital and commercial circulation.” It is then that a new image of the pirates, now “irredeemable outlaws and enemies of civilization,” crystallizes. If European legislation of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries turned against pirates who from being the uncomfortable, yet accepted double of the state (expanding commerce and empire), become the common enemy of all, Las Casas in the sixteenth century is asking for something more radical. He is interested in showing that Spaniards, by committing atrocities, had placed themselves outside the protection of any legislation and nationality to become everyone’s enemies. This was not in the name of a more rational or safer commercial expansion, but quite the opposite: in the name of making of the entire Earth a single smooth space across which the same legal orders would apply. As no international court existed in the sixteenth century, Las Casas had to again appeal to the king of Spain to take charge of this situation in which his subjects were terrorizing the New World. No longer Spaniards and “sin Dios, ni Rey,” these men and not the Indians were the ones who urgently needed restraining (“Entre” 179). Only a true international rule of law would have been able to deal with people like them.

Nevertheless, and as the epigraph to this paper indicates, the problem—visible to many others in addition to Las Casas—went much deeper than the rule of law or any legislation, which in the upside-down world of the colonies, served as a mild and ineffective solution engendering many other problems. Laws were “remiendos,” said Vasco de Quiroga—ironically a lawyer and oídor of the Segunda Audiencia—as if the situation they were trying to mend was beyond these inadequate, cursory measures. Whatever the solution to the Indies would be, it had to be found elsewhere and not in the compilations of the Leyes de Indias, which by trying to fix one thing, ended up wrecking many others. This realization would call for an abandonment of the law. But then again, even if legislation was not, and is not, enough, Las Casas’s acknowledgment of the need to enforce limitations was informed by his recognition of the bestiary into which human beings could transform themselves if allowed (one is reminded of the conquistadors who as lions, wolves, and hyenas populate the pages of Las Casas, Vasco de Quiroga, and many others). This brings us to another paradox: the fact that in spite of knowing that the solution to the problem of the Indies lay outside of the rule of law, he and others nonetheless found it necessary to appeal to it, in order to halt some of the damage. Because unless one were to advocate violence (a just war similar to what the indigenous people in the Americas had recourse to, according to Las Casas) and/or direct popular sovereignty (what Las Casas does in De Regia Potestate), there seems to be a need for mechanisms that have yet to be created, those of institutions capable of truthfully restraining what should be restrained. They did not exist in the world of the sixteenth century, nor do they exist in Mexico today. No real rule of law then, no rule of law now, but nevertheless there was a need to appeal to it as if it existed, until something else, something equivalent to the end of lawlessness passing as law, came to be. Thus the question that frames this essay (and the original Conference that gave rise to this collection of essays): Is it a matter of radical politics—a true break, unalloyed violence in a Benjaminian sense? Or is it about demanding the rule of law while recognizing both its extreme limitations and the brutality that lies on the other side? Las Casas seemed undecided and torn between them (but then again who wouldn’t be?).

Along with pushing for legislation that would reestablish the rule of law—restitution of everything stolen from the Indies and the Indians, the concept of “hostes humanity,” the calls to the king to make war against encomenderos were they to fight restitution (Arias, del Valle)—and as if there was nothing else that could fully remedy the situation, Las Casas imagines a form of divine intervention that would completely change it—the resurrection of the dead, the destruction of Spain. Given the conditions of his time, of which he was fully aware, this idea amounted perhaps to no more than daydreaming dictated by frustration. Though very similar to Las Casas’s formulation, in Benjamin, divine violence becomes a political possibility. As he ends one of his more radical essays, legal violence (that of a Cortés trying to institute a new order, or that of the Mexican government instituting “order,” for example) might resemble pure, immediate violence (that of the Indians fighting this order), yet the two are not only different, but opposites. And this difference should be emphasized: not all violence is the same. One either establishes or preserves the old (unjust) order (that of the conquest), what he calls “mythic violence;” the other one is the revolutionary violence that destroys it, what he calls “divine violence” (“Critique” 252):

If mythic violence is lawmaking, divine violence is law-destroying; if the former sets boundaries, the latter boundlessly destroys them; if mythic violence brings at once guilt and retribution, divine violence only expiates; if the former threatens, the latter strikes; if the former is bloody, the latter is lethal without spilling blood.

(“Critique” 249-50)

If Cortés’s sacred prerogatives to mete out guilt and pardon in administering the Indians, and the wrath of God that Motolinia reads in the events of sixteenth-century Mexico, correspond to the mythic violence Benjamin deplores, and if the pure, revolutionary or “divine” violence that Las Casas imagined still remains as a possibility on the horizon, now that the Mexican state is becoming again a kind of foreign, illegitimate ruler serving only the interests of greed (see Introduction), this form of lethal power that does not spill blood might be the answer. It is not every day that one reads a law professor closing his article on the criminality of the Mexican state with a reflection such as the following: “[s]i hoy el pueblo no se levanta, mañana hasta nuestros pensamientos más íntimos serán criminalizados como en los peores estados totalitarios” (Ackerman). Nor is it every day that a mainstream newspaper (La Jornada) prints such radical interpretations. The reasons might be that for some people it is time to bring about a “real state of emergency” that, as Benjamin put it, would finally “awaken the dead,” and at least try to “make whole what has been smashed” (“Theses” 257).

Conclusions: Colonialism and Contemporary Mexico

And now back to Tlatelolco and the plaque referring to the conquest as a still ongoing and undecided battle. This appraisal, along with the way in which colonial rule implies a particular relationship between violence and law, between sovereign power and life, makes the Octavio Paz of Postdata profoundly mistaken. In that work, Paz returns to the image of the pyramid and the tlatoani to explain the state violence of 1968 that again took a decisive turn in that same plaza in Tlatelolco. “Si desde el siglo XIV hay una secreta continuidad política,” asks Paz, “¿cómo extrañarse de que el fundamento inconsciente de esta continuidad sea el arquetipo político-religioso de los antiguos mexicanos: la pirámide, sus implacables jerarquías y, en lo alto, el jerarca y la plataforma del sacrificio?” (123). If as a poet Paz might be allowed to write about the continuity between the Aztec state, the colonial Spanish state, and the Mexican state, this exhibition of lax historiographical skills is not warranted in a book such as Postdata, if for nothing else because it occludes the problematic it tries to address.[19]

Mexica (Aztec) violence—which was extreme, and no better or worse than that of the Spanish state, simply different—has nothing to do with either colonial or contemporary violence. Sacrifice, the logic of the pyramid Paz referred to, implied forms, procedures, and an ideology that are very different from colonial consumption. As grotesque and misguided as these practices may have been, they imply an outlook that differs from the positing of “bare life” that can be freely taken by anyone who decides to do so—the current paradigm in Mexico. As George Bataille indicated “[s]acrifice restores to the sacred world that which servile use has degraded, rendered profane,” be it plants, animals or humans (Bataille 55). That is, every person sacrificed was taken out of the world of mundane profit which contaminated what he or she really was: someone partaking of a sacred world beyond mundane pursuits. Violence in contemporary Mexico and the violence set in the colonial period which Las Casas, Motolinia, Quiroga, and many others described, are the opposite.[20] These forms deprive humans of their humanity. They perform a retrieving and concentration of the sacred on the side of the executor of violence (mythical violence, Benjamin called it), who constructs his sovereignty through acts that render other human beings disposable, mere things.

After all, it was Motolinia who pointed out that, in sixteenth-century Mexico, it was because of the conquest and subsequent exhausting labor regimes that indigenous peoples were dying “como chinches” (14). It is in the laboratory of the Indies that certain forms of violence and of subject/object formation were used and spread. This is why Giorgio Agamben, who in Homo Sacer, argues that the word “Holocaust” misnames the systematic annihilation of the Jews since they had been killed not as victims of sacrifice, but as “bare life”—“lice,” he says (141)—is especially off track, seeking here and there, in Aristotle, in Roman laws, the doctrine of Habeas corpus, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, etc., a particular but ever-present dreadful moment in the development of Western civilization. Had he looked at the colonial archive he perhaps would have found the explanation for forms of power he was looking for.

By the same token, Paz is again mistaken when years before Postdata, in El laberinto de la soledad, he diagnoses Mexicans as afflicted with a colonial malaise. For him, colonialism persisted in the Mexican collective unconscious in the same way that the murder of Moses, according to Sigmund Freud, persisted in the Jewish unconscious. For Paz the country’s brutal origins manifested as a re-emergence of the repressed in Mexicans who could neither understand nor seek any form of power and sovereignty other than that inscribed through violence. As I have been suggesting, more than in any supposed national unconscious and more than in the supposed “Aztec mind,” it is in the colonial period, as an archive of possibilities, where one can find a situation similar to that of contemporary Mexico—including its formalistic understanding of the law and its configuration of a system that guarantees a particular articulation between violence, economy, and law.

Equally important are the stupefying conditions of its emergence. The colonial model is what persists as an available horizon in critical moments when there seems to be no open space to expand into. Now that there are new people afflicted by what appear to be the evils of the infinite greed Las Casas witnessed in the sixteenth century—people like Carlos Slim, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the Bibriescas, the Zetas, and Emilio Azcárraga, who need to seize territories and utilize their populations—an internal neo-colonial regime might be fully emerging. Hannah Arendt brilliantly demonstrated that the absence of human rights was in reality a problem created by denationalization, and that, in order to have rights, people needed the recognition of a nation that would guarantee them and uphold them. In this sense the crisis of human rights in Mexico signals a political crisis, that of a form of rule that has deprived many people of their rights of citizenship (their political rights, as Las Casas would have it). This is what has led to a kind of implosion in which new and powerful “hostes of humanity” (such as those who wield arms without revolution, cynical politicians and bureaucrats, and the lords of the many monopolies) freely dispute a territory and the thousands of people who inhabit it, for the personal consumption, without there seeming to exist mechanisms (a real nation-state) that could prevent this takeover because the people who should do so, are the ones participating in it and benefiting from it all.

That is why, even if written for a very different context (Argentina’s dictatorship in relation to the work of León Rozitchner), Bruno Bosteels’ arguments as to the disjointed nature of a past and a present that meet, are particularly relevant. As if to remind us that in the extreme violence of what now passes for rule of law there were hints of a return to old paradigms, he states, “[i]t is almost as if by a perverse counterfinality, the more we step back in time to dig up the prior origins of the power of subjection, the more history catches up with us from behind by turning the distant past into an ominous premonition of the present” (20).

Ayotzinapa and the way the authorities have handled the investigation of the students forcibly disappeared by members of the state have revealed what many people already “knew”: that there is hardly any—or no—difference between rule of law (the juridical, military, and executive state apparatus) and criminality (drug cartels, illegal forms of accumulation—in the form of bribes, payoffs, “gifts,” etc.). Law and criminality are two sides that collapse into each other. But if this shows how illegal the legal is, and how legal the illegal has become, it also reveals the violence of a system forcing itself (like the destiny imposed “a sangre y fuego” by the Requerimiento) onto people who are determined to fight for a separation of the two spheres: those who demand that the state fulfill its obligations (provide education, health, etc.) and that the rule of law not be indistinguishable from criminality.

Much in the same way that Marx conceived of the colonies in relation to the metropolis in his analysis of primitive accumulation where he reminded his readers that E.G. Wakefield had discovered “in the colonies the truth about capitalist relations in the mother country,” (932) Mexico makes visible the truth of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism thought of as an economic regime that through legislation achieves the reshaping of populations to conform to the needs of the market (the Reforms to the Constitution analyzed in the Introduction to this volume, for example) is shown to be far more than mere legislation by Ayotzinapa. Neocolonial/ neoliberal regimes such as that of Mexico directly eliminate and dispose of people who stand in the way of economic measures.

This is why Las Casas’s concepts and ideas remain relevant for understanding and addressing a situation that even if of another scale, so closely resembles the unbridled violence and impunity that pervaded the setting of capitalism and colonial rule. What remains to be seen is which Mexican president, law, or court would dare to recognize and prosecute these “enemies of humanity” who are nothing other than their own mirror image, standing at the other end of the spurious legal system they embody. Equally unresolved is whether the time is finally ripe for a revolutionary violence that, without shedding blood, will be able to bring about the destruction of historical and contemporary cynical forms of power.


01. This has to do with Michel Foucault’s inversion of Carl Von Clausewitz’s words, for whom “[w]ar is not only a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means” (Clausewitz 119). To this Foucault responds that the opposite is the case and that “[p]olitics is a continuation of war by other means” (“Society” 48).

02. Among the many works focusing on the events of the conquest of Mexico between 1519 and 1521, I find Inga Clendinnen’s article exemplary. Not only does she show what was at stake for Aztecs, Tlaxcaltecans, and Spaniards, but also why the reading and interpretation of those events should matter to us. My reading of Cortés’s actions owes a lot to Clendinnen’s interpretation of the siege and fall of Tenochtitlan and the conquistador’s role in it.

03. The recent work of Kevin Terraciano showing how Nahua chronicles interpreted the conquest, and the massacre by Pedro de Alvarado that preceded it, as a display of extreme and dumbfounding violence bent on achieving power and gold, and not imposing religion, helps us understand how the Spaniards were seen by the Mexicas and their allies.

04. The Requerimiento was the document read to Indians before battle informing them of the main tenets of the Christian religion and the charge of the king of Spain to promote Christianity in the world and therefore evangelize them. Two responses were possible: to submit and accept the truth of Christianity and the sovereignty of the new king, or to fight. See Patricia Seed for the history and logic behind such a document aiming to (as if by magic) legalize something that would otherwise have been pure violence.

05. Of course, before and after the conquest there were important divisions associated with class and ethnic differences among the Indians. As the volume by Matthew Restall et al proves, it is difficult to talk about a single indigenous experience in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Nevertheless, as some of the documents in his compilation show, after the conquest, even the groups allied with the Spaniards (Tlaxcaltecans, Xochimilcas, for example) were negatively affected. Even Charles Gibson’s attempt to demonstrate the continuity of indigenous life under Spanish rule fails to achieve its goal; his book ends up leaving the impression that, whether immediately or gradually, Spanish rule deeply harmed life for the Nahuas in the area he analyzes.

06. See for example the following quote toward the end of the siege, during which fresh water had been cut off and provisions prevented from arriving to Tenochtitlan: “Otro día después… volvimos a la cibdad…hallamos las calles por donde íbamos llenas de mujeres y niños y otra gente miserable que se morían de hambre. Y salían traspasados y flacos que era la mayor lástima del mundo de los ver, y yo mandé a nuestros amigos que no les ficiesen mal ninguno” (417). At another point Cortés says they had killed or apprehended more than 40,000 people (422). For an explanation of why Cortés’s measures—a siege, indiscriminate killing—probably appeared excessive to the Indians, see Clendinnen.

07. As Clendinnen put it: “It is possible that as he ran through his degraded routine of stratagems in those last days Cortés was brought to glimpse something of the Indian view of the nature and quality of the Spanish warrior,” a warrior whose “privilege as victor,” as she says, was “to survey the surreal devastation of the city that had been the glittering prize and magnificent justification for his insubordination” (92). 

08. The plagues are, in the order Motolinia presents them: (1) the smallpox epidemic preceding the conquest, and all that it caused (further deaths from hunger since no one could really work); (2) the wars of conquest; (3) the hunger that ensued in the wake of war; (4) the abuses of the people overseeing the repartimiento; (5) tribute and other services; (6) mines; (7) the reconstruction of Mexico City; (8) slavery in the mines; (9) labor demanded in the mines; and (10) divisions among different Spanish factions (13-18).

09. See for example the way he finishes his proposals to the king to improve the situation in the Indies. After invoking all the angels and saints as witnesses of his denunciation of the crimes committed there, he adds: “y que por aquellos pecados, por lo que leo en la Sagrada Escritura, Dios ha de castigar con horribles castigos y quizás totalmente destruya toda España” (“Entre” 214). Or some of his rhetorical interjections in the Brevísima that appear to be expressions to no one in particular and to everyone in general, though in fact were intended to emphasize that the king was not paying attention to the situation in the Indies: “¡Oh, quién pudiese dar a entender de cient partes una de las afliciones y calamidades que aquellas inocentes gentes por los infelices españoles padecen! Dios sea áquel que lo de a entender a los que lo pueden y deben remediar” (136).

10. See Santa Arias for an analysis of Del único modo, and how Las Casas’s proposals there are mild when compared to the “contundentes demandas” of his later work (340). Arias and Eyda Merediz put together an excellent compilation of essays that analyze most of his texts in the contexts in which they were produced and thereby explain Las Casas’s shifting objectives.

11. The dehumanizing violence of drug cartels in Mexico draws a perfect parallel with that of sixteenth-century conquistadors who in Las Casas and many other historians and chroniclers appear to be performing acts of individual and massive torture for no apparent reason. This is not to say that there are “reasons” that would justify torture or explain it—but in the raids of the conquest, the conquistadors were not trying to elicit information or trying to achieve any other practical goals. See Marcela Turati for an examination of contemporary violence in Mexico and Adriana Cavarero for an analysis of what these extreme forms might attempt to say. 

12. I am very grateful to Keith Budner for conversations in which he pointed to the question of scale as an important category to consider when addressing the conquest.

13. Even if moralistic in its general outlook, Las Casas’s discussion of greed as a form of a dangerous and all-consuming disease without a cure, and the problems it engendered for a republic in which greedy men were allowed to do as they pleased, is once again quite relevant for these times in which the interests of a few capitalists and their relentless desire to possess more are given the final word by most governments. His discussion of how happiness and wealth appear similar is equally interesting in a psychoanalytic sense (“la posesión del oro, y las riquezas tenga tanta semejanza y vecindad con la bienaventuranza, y felicidad” “Entre” 174).

14. Schmitt writes about two “open” spaces in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in which, as he puts it, “the activity of European nations proceeded unrestrained: first, an immeasureable space of free land—the New World, America, the land of freedom, i.e. land free for appropriation by Europeans—where the ‘old’ law was not in force; and second, the free sea” (The Nomos 94).

15. See for example what he says about the destruction caused in Venezuela in the Brevísima: “Y estos daños de aquí a la fin del mundo no hay esperanza de ser recobrados, sino hiciese Dios por milagro resucitar tantos cuentos de ánimas muertas” (151, emphasis added).

16. I am not interested in the Indians as victims, though they indeed were. Nevertheless, as we know, they did fight the Spaniards almost everywhere. Technological disadvantages, ethnic strife among themselves, and the numerous plagues that decimated their populations throughout the 16th century (oftentimes bringing them to a collapse even before the arrival of the Spaniards) made it physically impossible to resist successfully. See Carlos Jáuregui for a similar reading of Las Casas’s use of the word “consumption” to refer to Spanish practices as “a distortion of the Eucharist” that substitutes the body of Christ for Indian bodies, and Indian labor (82). Jáuregui’s interpretation raises an interesting parallel between religion and economic practices, by which Christianity is transformed into capitalism.

17. Briefly put, for Schmitt the word nomos refers to both the originary hold and distribution of land by a group that became what it is through these measures and through the order (legal and social) derived from this “primeval division and distribution” (The Nomos 67; on this concept see especially Chapter 4). For him, the European land grab on which the colonization of the Americas was founded inaugurated the first global (Eurocentric) international order (the nomos of the Earth).

18. The very different cases of Elba Esther Gordillo, the leader of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), jailed in February 2013 by Enrique Peña Nieto’s regime for fiscal fraud, and that of José Manuel Mireles, one of the best known leaders of the auto-defense groups in Michoacán, apprehended in July 2014, nevertheless follow the same pattern. Just as in the colonial period, rather than contributing to the rule of law, these cases further undermine it, for they exhibit the exceptional character of the sovereign’s decision—acting only and when it pleases. For the case of Gordillo, see the multiple articles published in Proceso in March 2013. For an excellent article addressing the case of Mireles and what it means to the rule of law, see John Ackerman, who considers Mireles a political prisoner. 

19. Gareth Williams traces the reduction and displacement of the 1968 movement to its sacrificial moment (October 2nd) to Paz’s “melancholic” reading of it (132-37). According to Williams, Paz posits the Aztec past as lost, but also as occasionally recovered as a specter, that as terrible as it might be, cannot be renounced since it is the “archaic origin” of identity. For Williams Paz’s interpretation erases the students’ challenge to sovereign power, presents state violence as the return of the archaic (Aztec past) and not as “an essential enactment of modernity,” and proposes an understanding of progress in which the modern never completely captures or annuls the past (137). 

20. Both forms are mystifications of particular ways in which sovereignty is constructed: in each case, someone decides who gets to live and who gets to die. But even when death is the end point in both systems, analytical rigor should not make us confuse or conflate one with the other.

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