Mexico City, Mexico, Jul 14, 2017 / 06:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The recent massacre of over two dozen prisoners in a central penitentiary in the state of Guerrero, Mexico may have been part of a ritual of the Santa Muerte cult.

On July 6, in what was thought to be a quarrel between inmates or an attempted riot, 28 prisoners were murdered inside the Las Cruces jail in Acapulco. Some of the dead were beheaded.

Citing documents from state and federal officials, the Mexican newspaper Reforma alleged that “the prisoners were executed in the middle of a ritual to Santa Muerte,” lead by drug traffickers of the Independent Cartel of Acapulco. While other federal sources, such as Roberto Alvarez Heredia, security spokesman for Guerrero state, have refused to comment on the cultic ritual aspect of the massacre, state authorities confirm that the killings began because of “constant dispute between rival groups inside the prison,” Alvarez said in a statement.

Officials have also confirmed the presence of explosives and firearms inside the prison. So far, 22 bodies have been returned to families. The prison houses over 2,000 prisoners. Following the killings, state police will still retain control of security in the prison, with addition support coming from National Police and Mexican Army forces.

The Santa Muerte, or “Holy Death,” is a rapidly growing folk devotion in Mexico and Latin America, marked by a skull adorned with various forms of decoration — including imagery traditionally associated with Catholic saints such as veils or hearts. Beginning in the 1960s, the cult has found great acceptance among drug trafficking cartels and other sub-cultures outside of mainstream Mexican society. The Santa Muerte is also associated with practices of witchcraft and prayers for specific favors, including retribution.

According to the FBI, some variants of the Santa Muerte devotion surrounding the drug culture, cartels and trafficking promotes “extreme” behaviors and criminality, including ritualistic killings.

In 2013, the Vatican condemned devotion to Santa Muerte, equating it to “the celebration of devastation and of hell.”