TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — The massacre of 18 people in a shoe factory in northern Honduras was likely an attempt by the assailants to eliminate sympathizers of a rival gang even though none of the victims had criminal records, authorities said Wednesday.

Three men with AK-47 rifles burst into the small shoemaking shop Tuesday and opened fire, killing 18 employees, including the owner's 26-year-old son. The owner himself was not in the shop during the attack.

The killings occurred in Cabanas, a gritty neighborhood in the city of San Pedro Sula that has long been dominated by the Mara 18 street gang, and has been home to its leaders in the past.

"A group from one gang went to the place to eliminate sympathizers from another gang," Security Minister Oscar Alvarez said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Out of respect for the families of the victims, I'm not saying those killed were gangsters but they were friends with some gang members."

However, Alvarez said none of the 18 had criminal records. They were between 15 and 35 years old.

Relatives of some of the victims insisted the men didn't have enemies and had never been threatened by street gangs.

"He didn't mess with anyone. All he did was work," Melania Contreras, whose only son, 19-year-old Julio Contreras, was killed, told the Channel 5 television station.

Reyna Pineda, whose two adult nephews were killed, said that "nobody expected this tragedy."

It was the worst gang massacre in Honduras since 28 people were killed in December 2004 when gunmen opened fire on a passenger bus in Chamelecon, a city near San Pedro Sula.

The region has long been a hotbed of gunbattles between drug traffickers and among the country's Mara street gangs.

In May, eight members of the Mara 18 gang were killed inside a house in Concepcion de Choluma, another town near San Pedro Sula.

Honduras and neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador are the most violent countries in the Western Hemisphere, a problem largely blamed on street gangs. Increasing drug trafficking throughout the region has exacerbated the violence.

Honduras' homicide rate reached 66.8 per 100,000 people in 2009, up from 26 in 2004, according to government figures.