The assailants who killed a crime reporter in the Mexican Gulf coast state of Veracruz appeared to be targeting two other people also slain in the attack, not the journalist, the country's top human rights official said Wednesday.

The Interior Department's deputy secretary for human rights, Roberto Campa, said the initial investigation suggests Candido Rios Vazquez of the newspaper Diario de Acayucan was not the attackers' target. He did not provide any additional details.

"All indications point toward this being an attack against another person and that person's bodyguards," Campa said during a visit to Veracruz's capital.

Mexican officials have often been quick to point to motives other than reporting in the killings of journalists and Campa's comments outraged Rios Vazquez's colleagues, who said the journalist had been repeatedly threatened by a former mayor since 2012.

"They're worse than the bullets that killed Candido," the slain reporter's editor, Cecilio Perez Cortes, said of Campa's remarks.

Perez said it was "irresponsible" of Campa to make such a public conclusion less than 24 hours after the crime without any proof. "Implicitly he's freeing the killers from blame," the editor said.

Campa oversees the federal government's so-called mechanism to protect journalists and human rights workers. He confirmed that Rios Vazquez had been enrolled in the program since 2013 due to threats from a municipal official. He said Rios Vazquez's case had been reviewed in recent months and that his home was outfitted with six surveillance cameras and he had a panic button.

The attack that occurred Tuesday afternoon in front of a gas station on a rural highway was not the sort of risk that authorities had evaluated for Rios Vazquez, he said.

"We have to do an analysis and self-criticism about the effectiveness of the measures," Campa said.

Hilda Nieves Martinez, Rios Vazquez's wife, confirmed Wednesday that her husband had been threatened for years by a former mayor of Hueyapan. Men had been sent to beat him up and they had threatened to cut out his tongue and eyes. He had gone to Mexico City to tell authorities about all of it, she said.

Perez said that his reporter had just messaged him and was headed home around 3 p.m. He had stopped along the road to speak with a former police inspector he knew when they were attacked. The inspector was also killed along with a third person.

The National Human Rights Commission said Rios Vazquez was the ninth journalist slain so far this year in Mexico. It called for a thorough investigation and for officials to provide protection for his family.

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson said Wednesday via Twitter that she was dismayed by Rios Vazquez's murder. "Together we defend and respect freedom of the press," she wrote.

The front page of Wednesday's Diario de Acayucan featured a large photograph of Rios Vazquez below the headline: "They will not silence us."


AP writer Mark Stevenson in Mexico City and AP photographer Felix Marquez in Hueyapan de Ocampo contributed to this report.