Murder by Machismo

On July 26, 1980, 32-year-old Eloisa Ballesteros was shot to death as she lay sleeping in her bed.   Her killer was her estranged husband, 35-year-old Marcio Stanciolli, with whom she was living in their expensive mansion in Belo Horizonte, Brazil along with their two young children.   Stanciolli made no attempt to conceal his crime and was immediately arrested for Eloisa's murder.  It was the second killing of its kind in only fifteen days, both involving husbands shooting their estranged wives and claiming the same defense in court:  the right for a husband to kill his wife in order to "avenge his honour." 

In the previous murder case, landscaper Eduardo Souza Rocha killed his wife, Maria dos Santos Souza Rocha as she was returning  from gym.  As a defense, Rocha said that his wife "came to require freedoms such as smoking, using indecent clothing, including bikini,  exercising, returning to school, working out and even riding a car alone." 

The word "machismo" conveys different meanings depending on the culture in which it is used.  Stemming from Spanish and Portuguese traditions of manliness,  the role of machismo in Brazilian society remains extremely strong.   Along with defining traditional masculine and feminine roles (with males being dominant in their own homes),  the concept of machismo also demands that wives who are regarded as too independent be punished for this infraction, sometimes to the point of murder. 

As a result, domestic violence remains high in Brazil with ten to fifteen women being murdered each day.  According to one government study, 41,532 women have been murdered between 1997 and 2007.  Prevailing attitudes predominantly blame the victims with convictions remaining rare.  Belo Horizonte, where the two murders took place, is the capital of the state of Minas Gerais and is considered to be a bastion of conservatism.

In the case of Eloisa Ballesteros, an independent businesswoman who operated a chain of fashionable clothing stores, she had apparently become estranged from her husband and, as Marcio Stanciolli would later testify in court, was planning to leave him so that she could marry someone else.   His attorney also argued that her business career was causing her to neglect the more important role of wife and mother and that Stanciolli's passions had been "inflamed by his jealousy".  

The trial helped polarize Brazilian society and exposed the deadly consequences of machismo to the world.   While men took Stanciolli's side and insisted that he was within his rights to defend his honour, women and women's rights advocates strongly argued that failing to get a conviction would set a precedent that could lead to future deaths.    The murders of Eloisa Ballesteros and Maria dos Santos Souza Rocha led to a series of public demonstrations across Brazil.   In Belo Horizonte where the killings took place,  the slogan "those who love, do not kill" plastered walls across the city as well as "In Minas a marriage certificate is a death warrant".  

While Stanciolli's case was waiting to come to trial, Eloisa's murder helped unite the previously fragmented women's movement in Brazil and led to the founding of shelters for domestic violence victims in many cities.  'This case was the symbol for us,'' said Paula Montero, a sociologist who was a member of the Center for the Defense of Women's Rights in Belo Horizonte.  

Despite the political pressure, the all-male jury ruled on May 14, 1983 that Marcio Stanciolli had been justified in taking action against his wife but that he had used means that were not "moderate" according to Brazil's penal code.  Based on this finding, the presiding judge Celso Alves de Melo only gave the defendant a suspended sentence of two years in jail.  As well, he retained custody of his two children.   On hearing the verdict, women in the courtroom jeered and the judge had to restore order.   The men in the audience expressed strong satisfaction however.

In an interview with the media afterward, Antonio Orfeu Brauna, homicide chief of the Belo Horizonte Police, commented that the defense was "brilliant" but that "the only reason he won his client's freedom is he played perfectly to the machismo in this society."   Women's rights groups expressed dismay at the verdict and argued that Stanciolli's acquittal would encourage more men to use the machismo defense to justify killing women.

And this fear appears to be real.  Along with Stanciolli's acquittal, the courts also dealt with Eduardo Souza Rocha's trial.   Though a jury failed to accept his "debt of honour" defense the first time around, the verdict was overturned on appeal.  Due to outrage over judgments such as these, women's groups began documenting cases of domestic violence that often went unreported previously.  What they found was a systematic pattern of violence against women, all deemed permissible under the machismo tradition, though most of the offenses fell short of murder.   Violent incidents directed against women have included broken bones, mutilation with acid or sharp objects, and sexual assault.

Even today, domestic violence and injuries stemming from sexual assault remain the sixth leading cause of death or disability in women aged fifteen to forty-four years of age, far more that deaths from cancer or traffic accidents.  An estimated one-third of all emergency hospitalizations in Brazil stem from domestic violence and government pressure to curb such incidents has led to stronger legal measures.   In 2007, then-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva signed the Law of Domestic and Family Violence. This law created special courts in all provinces to preside over domestic violence cases and tripled the penalties for people convicted of crimes.   

Since 1985 (largely due to outrage over cases such as Eloisa Ballesteros), each Brazilian state has offered  "women's police stations" (Delegacia da mulher) dedicated to addressing crimes against women.   Though these stations are supposed to offer a wide range of victim services, including emergency shelters, the quality and availability of services still varies widely though they serve to raise public awareness about domestic violence.   The Brazilian government also maintains a toll-free hotline for victim complaints and hospitals are required to alert police regarding cases in which women have been harmed physically or psychologically.  Despite these tighter provisions, women often have difficulty seeking protection from abusive partners, many of whom are disregarding restraining orders.

While machismo remains a concern for women's groups across Latin America, there are signs that attitudes have changed regarding domestic murders.   Outright acquittals such as with Marcio Stanciolli are rarer now though women separating from husbands or boyfriends still fear for their lives.  For now, the issue of death by machismo is still unfolding in Brazil, along with much of Latin America.   What this means for future victims remains to be seen.




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