By Neha Wadekar
NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Issac Muasa decided to give up his life of crime on Kenya's streets in the instant he saw a speeding police car aim for him and his friends as they tried to snatch a woman's purse.
"It was God who saved us (from the police) because we just ran very fast," said Muasa, 33, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt.
"We almost died."
Not long before, the bullet-ridden corpses of three of Muasa's friends had been found in a forest after they had left Mathare, Nairobi's second largest slum, to mug people in richer neighborhoods.
Kenya's police often use deadly force against suspected criminals, with hundreds of people killed in the past two years, according to a database compiled by the East African country's Daily Nation newspaper.
After his brush with death, Muasa switched sides: from criminal to law enforcer – albeit without any legal authority.
In 2012, Muasa brought together around 80 former criminals and idle young men from Mathare, one of Nairobi's most dangerous neighborhoods, to patrol its poorly-lit, twisting streets, lined with crumbling mud houses.
The Mlango Kubwa Landlords and Tenants Association (MLATA), named after the area where they operate, charges residents 150 Kenya shillings ($1.50) a month for its services.
Groups like MLATA are one piece in a patchwork of informal survival strategies woven together by residents to improve their safety in the slum where muggings, break-ins and robberies are a routine part of life.
The prevalence of private security providers, ranging from social networks and opportunistic enforcers to tireless local guardians, highlight the government's failure to fulfill one of its core functions, experts say.
"Security is a mandate of the state but security has not been enforced," Stephen Mwangi, a Mathare youth leader, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"It forces us to hustle for our own security."
As the sun set, a dozen members of MLATA gathered at their headquarters, a one-room building with a thin tin roof, to watch soccer and wait for darkness.
The densely packed streets and dirt alleys, bustling during the day, emptied out as vendors packed up their goods and turned off their music, and Mathare became eerily quiet and still.
At 9 pm, they began walking the streets, stopping to greet the few residents still outside their homes. Almost everyone shook Muasa's hand and thanked him as his patrol scanned the darkness for unusual activity.
Thankfully, this was a quiet night.
The men dressed in dark clothing, with hoods pulled up to protect against the cold. Many carried machetes hidden under in their jackets, keeping their hands tightly fixed on the handles as they walked the dark alleys.
MLATA is popular with its members, who are otherwise unemployed, as it provides them with a regular income and sense of purpose. They also perform tasks, such as picking up trash, to improve the community.
Muasa believes unemployment is one of the main causes of the high crime rate in Nairobi's slums, where the majority of the city's four million residents eke out a living as casual laborers on building sites and factories or as street hawkers.
Like many young men from Mathare, Muasa dropped out of a failing school and turned to crime as a teenager to earn money, seeing no other job opportunities.
With nearly one in four Kenyan youth unemployed, according to the United Nations Development Programme, car jacking, burglary, and robbery with violence are common across Nairobi.
Mathare is an illegal, unplanned informal settlement, built across privately-held and government-owned land.
Most parts do not have streets wide enough for police vehicles to patrol and poor lighting makes it risky even for officers, police spokesman Charles Owino said.
"A criminal can hide in a place the police may not be able to see him," he said. "He may be able to even shoot at a police officer and run away."
The police oppose informal security groups like MLATA.
"They easily turn into gangs and they also end up harassing people," said Owino, urging the public to work with the police and share information with them instead.
But many slum residents fear the police, who they say bribe, harass and use excessive force against them - a common problem in slums globally.
"There is nowhere in the world where the police actually provide the same kind of service to poor neighborhoods," said Mutuma Ruteere, director of the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies, a Kenyan think tank.
The police work hard to provide security for all Kenyans, regardless of their economic status or location and act on complaints, Owino said.
"The majority of police officers do a good job and most of the residents are happy," he said.
Some local residents support the vigilantes. Malik Brian still hides broken bottles under his bed to guard against thieves, but believes that MLATA keeps him safer.
"These guys are making all the difference," he said.
"We have a system (and) it's working," he said, adding that payment for their services should be made compulsory.
Others say informal security groups dispense brutal mob justice, beating suspects to death on the streets rather than handing them over to the police who may let them go.
"Do they have the right to beat up suspects?" asked Mwangi. "Are they allowed to walk around with machetes?"
Muasa denied using violence or breaking the law, insisting MLATA's presence on the streets is enough to deter crime.
If a robbery, mugging or even a rape does occur, the group uses its connections with the community to discover who committed the crime, he said, as Mathare is a tightly-knit community where everyone knows each other.
The accused then gets a visit from the patrol.
"We make sure we have gone to their home to just warn them and tell them they should not do that again," Muasa said.
Many Kenyans' fear of informal security groups is rooted in their experience of the Mungiki, a banned Mafia-like organization that began as a religious sect and metamorphosed into Kenya's biggest organized crime group.
Mathare was a stronghold of the Mungiki, where it was involved in murder and extortion, levying protection fees on the poor and supplying electricity and water at monopoly prices, Kenya's police said.
The government banned the group in 2002, after knife-wielding members killed more than 20 people in a clash with a rival gang in Mathare.
Despite a brutal 2007 police crackdown, in which rights groups said hundreds of young men were killed, the International Criminal Court said the Mungiki mutilated and killed opposition supporters in the wake of Kenya's contested 2007 election.
Though Mungiki no longer operate in Mathare, the role they played in providing young men with an income and a sense of identity has been taken up by groups like MLATA.
"Those groups are what we are fighting to end," said Anthony Muoki Mburu, a lifetime Mathare resident.
"They take the law into their (own) hands."
Until policing improves in Nairobi's congested slums, vigilantes are likely to keep patrolling their dark streets, in the same way that wealthier city residents rely on private security guards to man their gated homes.
"We need to be careful not to criminalize self-help initiatives in poor areas because they don't exactly look like the formal security guards that we have in the richer areas," Ruteere said.
"I will always remember one group's answer to me was: 'You have a guard at the gate, so why is what you are doing right and what we are doing wrong?'"
($1 = 101.4600 Kenyan shillings)
(Reporting by Neha Wadekar, editing by Katy Migiro and Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)