There's a troubling new trend on the streets of Tegucigalpa these days: taxi drivers with teddy bears.
And no, it's not some creepy pedophile thing.
According to Honduran social media and newspaper reports, cabbies and bus drivers who have stuffed animals sitting on their dashboard, hanging from their rearview mirror, or tied to their vehicle's front grille could be signaling gang members.
Though no one seems to have fully decoded the teddy bears' secrets, it's rumored that different colored stuffed animals mean the bus driver is or isn't paying extortion to certain gangs. A stuffed animal displayed through the windshield could be a signal to gangs that the driver isn't paying extortion at all, but is willing to cooperate with gang members if they stop the vehicle to rob the passengers onboard, according to the social media fretting of Hondurans.
Honduran daily La Tribuna ran a cover story without a byline on Monday warning passengers about the teddy bear menace. It urged folks to be particularly on guard for stuffed monkeys on the dashboard. A representative of the newspaper said La Tribuna's attempt at amateur semiotics was supported by reader-supplied information from Facebook and private WhatsApp messages.
Police and cabbies, however, claim it's all a bunch of hooey.
"In recent days there has been a campaign of disinformation; there are people who are trying to intimidate the population by spreading false information," Honduran police spokesman Leonel Sauceda told Fusion.
Sauceda said Honduran intelligence agents have investigated the rumors in "a professional and responsible manner" and determined that "in no way is it true."
"There are people with bad intentions who are trying to spread these rumors to generate a negative environment and spread fear among certain parts of the population," Sauceda said, without elaborating as to who would be behind such a smear campaign.
Honduran gangs — or maras — have been extorting buses and taxis for years. The penalty for failing to pay the so-called "war tax" is often death. In the past week alone, a bus and a taxi have been attacked and incinerated on the streets of Tegucigalpa, allegedly by gang members.
Police claim they have curbed the problem over the past year by cracking down on the extortion rings with uniformed and undercover police officers riding aboard certain bus routes. Honduras' new military police force even created a special anti-extortion unit to help tackle the problem.
But driving a bus or taxi remains a high-risk profession in Honduras, where 130 cabbies and chauffeurs were killed in one 15-month period between 2013-14, according to a report from Honduras' Human Rights Commission.
Tegucigalpa taxi drivers are loath to talk about the situation, or speculate as to why certain chauffeurs are suddenly displaying stuffed animals on their grille or dash.
"I couldn't tell you anything about that, I haven't seen it at our taxi stand," said Nelson Moreno, who's been driving a cab in Tegucigalpa for 14 years.
The cabbie was even more reluctant to comment on whether cops have gotten a handle on extortion. "For that type of comment…actually, I'm a little busy," he said, before hanging up.
Other taxi drivers claim the teddy bears are just about showing a little flair on souped up vehicles — something to catch the ladies' attention, says this cabbie, slightly salaciously.
Whether the stuffed animals are about style or gang signaling remains a subject to debate. But it's safe to say that teddy bear taxis aren't giving passengers a snuggly, safe feeling as they zip around Honduras' capital.