EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Police in Oaxaca, Mexico, are investigating a deadly attack against three women inside a shrine to the Santa Muerte – an icon often worshiped by drug traffickers.

The Wednesday attack in the town of Ejutla claimed the lives of two women ages 42 and 53 and left a 39-year-old woman with a gunshot wound to the arm, Mexican media reported. The Oaxaca Attorney General’s Office said it was investigating the deaths as femicides.

News reports citing witness accounts said a group of men arrived in a gray car to the shrine in the Las Casitas neighborhood and fired at least 20 shots at the women. Police reportedly retrieved shell casings from a 9mm pistol, an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and a shotgun. Local authorities identified the deceased as Agustina B.B. and Salome S.M. The latter was identified as the shrine keeper.

No arrests were reported as of Thursday afternoon.

Death is a popular folk figure in Mexican culture and part of tradition in holidays like Day of the Dead. Small shrines and shops with candles and miniature renditions of Santa Muerte (Holy Death) can be found not only in Mexico but in some U.S. cities as well.

In this Feb. 13, 2013 file photo, statues of La Santa Muerte, an underworld saint most recently associated with the violent drug trade in Mexico, are shown at the Masks y Mas art store in Albuquerque, N.M. Santa Fe Archbishop John Wester recently told The Associated Press he believes some Catholics may be fooled into venerating Santa Muerte even though the focus on death runs counter to the church’s teachings and she’s not an official Catholic saint. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras, File)

“Santa Muerte has often been erroneously portrayed by the media and U.S. law enforcement as a narco-saint, that is to say a saint venerated solely by narco-traffickers,” said a September 2020 article in the National Institute of Health, explaining how some in Latin America sought the “saint’s” protection against COVID-19. “Holy Death has long been turned to for health and healing by her devotees …”

Four major drug cartels operate in Oaxaca; they include the Beltran Leyva Organization, Zetas Old school, Northeast cartel and Jalisco New Generation Cartel, according to a 2020 briefing by the Intelligence Unit of the Mexican Treasury Department.