DESPITE LAST WEEK'S lofty new rhetoric in defense of democracy and human rights, the Reagan administration's real agenda in El Salvador remains bullets for the Salvadoran army, not democratic reform. Unless Congress reverses those priorities quickly, any hope of preventing a military victory by the Marxist left or finding a political solution that offers hope for democracy will soon disappear, if it still exists at all.

The tragedy is that under this administration we seem to see our enemies clearly in El Salvador -- the armed guerrillas -- but we hardly see our friends at all. The Reagan administration only sees a crisis when the Salvadoran army suffers a military setback. The real crisis we face -- and must address immediately -- is that the forces of democracy are under attack and are steadily losing ground.

They are the members and leaders of democratic trade unions, peasant organizations, political parties, teachers, students, progressive business and professional people, and ordinary citizens who are struggling to build a true democracy in that war-torn country despite the violent opposition of armed forces on both the left and right.

If we are to win the struggle for democracy in El Salvador, the Congress and the administration should focus their attention first upon those 5,000 courageous campesinos who marched on San Salvador earlier this month in support of land reform. They knew they were taking their lives in their hands. Those peasants are America's first line of defense against communist insurgency in El Salvador. And if we do not strengthen their forces by defending land and other reforms, all of the bullets and M-16s and helicopters we send the Salvadoran army will not be enough to turn the tide.

Today, land reform -- particularly the land-to-the-tiller program -- lies dying in El Salvador, victim of a thousand wounds. The recent vote of the constituent assembly to keep the program technically alive does nothing to alter the facts about land reform on the ground.

The land reform promulgated by the new Salvadoran government, following the October 1979 young officers' coup, was one of the most far-reaching ever proposed in Latin America. Real gains were made in its infancy, particularly under the first phase of the program which expropriated the 328 largest estates and turned them into peasant-owned cooperatives.

But a counterrevolution of terror and political manipulation has been waged against land reform by the extreme right and the oligarchs ever since, and today the right is winning the battle.

The peasant-run co-ops are being starved for the credit and technical assistance they badly need -- and were promised -- under the original program. The second phase, which was supposed to cover more than 1700 additional plantations, has never begun. No one in El Salvador believes it will. Phase 3 of the program, which was designed to reduce the influence of absentee landlords over subsistence farmers by providing campesinos with land plots of 17 acres or less, suffered its greatest setback, ironically, following the March elections, speeded up and pushed so vigorously by the Reagan administration.

The extreme right took over every agricultural ministry following those elections. (Christian Democrats retained nominal control over the land reform institute, but its influence over the program was eliminated). The rightists have been murdering land reform systematically ever since -- just as they have been murdering their political opponents over the last decade. The former vice minister of agriculture, a Christian Democrat, told me in San Salvador that he resigned his position in protest last May rather than lend his name to the destruction of a program he and others had sacrificed so much to create.

Congress can and should come to the defense of land reform in El Salvador. But to do so, it must rewrite and strengthen the provisions now written into the foreign assistance act which the administration must adhere to as a condition of further aid. As things stand now there is no serious pressure on the Salvadoran government to make good on land reform. Former president Napolean Duarte, now an elected member of the Constituent Assembly, pointed out that current U.S. law puts more direct pressure on the Reagan administration to certify general progress in areas such as land reform than it places on the Salvadoran government to make concrete progress on the ground.

Congress can and should explicitly condition future economic assistance on demonstrated proof from the Salvadoren government, confirmed by campesino organizations, that specific numbers of land titles have been paid for and issued to the nation's peasant farmers. And those requirements should be followed by further demands that Phase 2 be revived and that the peasant co-ops receive not only the credit and technical assistance they were promised but, wherever conditions permit, also the adult literacy programs, health care, roads and other improvements envisaged in the original land reform program.

By linking levels of economic assistance directly to specified progress on land reform -- by signing a "contract" with the Salvadoran government, as Napolean Duarte put it -- we can give democratic forces in that country what they need the most today: real leverage to fight for their ideals.

We should provide the same kind of leverage to the democratic center in the area of human rights by specifically conditioning greater levels of military aid on a restructuring of the military. This restructuring should specifically disband the most notorious of the security forces, the treasury and national police forces. For there is no way that the democratic forces in El Salvador can win their struggle as long as the price of political opposition in that country is a bullet in your head.

Administration spokesmen testified recently that only 2,630 Salvadorean citizens were murdered last year for political reasons compared to 5,439 the year before. But one should have no illusions about claims of "progress" on this score. If you are a Salvadoran who blows the whistle on official corruption, opposes the oligarchy or extreme right too vociferously or merely seeks to find the whereabouts of a friend or loved one who has "disappeared," you had better keep your head very low in El Salvador. Or somebody will blow it off. Thirty thousand people have been murdered already.

The killings are not random. They serve clear political purposes. While I was there, for instance, a colonel who ran the main post office was accused of having stolen a total of $6 million in money orders which Salvadoran workers living in the United States had mailed home to their families. Based on the evidence uncovered, the constituent assembly ordered the colonel to stay in the country pending a full investigation.

The colonel charged that he was the victim of a "subversive" plot hatched by the postal workers union. Then he obtained an exit visa and left the country, and no official tried to stop him. A few days later, the former head of the postal workers union was walking through a park in downtown San Salvador where he was abducted by the familiar "armed men in civilian clothes." He has "disappeared."

Just as our certification requirements fail to ensure concrete progress on land reform, there is nothing in the provisions governing our military assistance -- or in administration policy -- that offers real hope that political killings will be stopped.

For when the armed men in civilian clothes finish their nighttime murdering in El Salvador, they put back on the uniform of the national and treasury police, and walk about the streets with impunity in the noonday sun.

Until the security forces are disbanded and placed under the real, not bureaucratic jurisdiction of the regular army, there is no realistic prospect for creating a space that is safe for those fighting for democracy.

Nor is there anything but hypocrisy in the administration's professed policy goal of bringing those individuals who share a commitment to a democratic system, but are now allied politically with the Marxist guerilla left, back into the electoral system. Reuben Zamora of the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR -- the political wing of the rebels) is such an individual. He is a former Christian Democrat who served as minister of the presidency in the government following the October 1979 coup. His brother, Mario, was also a minister in that cabinet.

February 23, 1980 was a few days after then-major, now President of the Constituent Assembly Roberto D'Aubuisson denounced Mario Zamora as a subversive on Salvadoran television. That was the day armed men broke into his home during a party and shot him to death. After experiences like that one, could Reuben Zamora be expected to return to the electoral process while the same death squads roam unimpeded?

We should have no illusions about how difficult it would be to bring the security forces under control, especially in the middle of a guerilla war and in the face of determined political opposition from the right. But until reforms are made, the United States is defending a government that includes not only people committed to democracy, but people committed to political murder.

Instead of demanding structural reforms, Congress has falled into a trap by tying our aid instead to progress in specific cases involving the murders of American citizens. Eventually, if the pressure on Salvador is sufficiently great, the military may finally cough up a few corporals -- perhaps even a colonel -- to take responsibility for these crimes. But the real problem is not that those who have murdered Americans have not been brought to justice. The problem is that in El Salvador, there is no real system of justice for anyone who fights for social change.

The first step must be the disbanding of the most notorious of the security police. And that first step should be followed as soon as possible -- as a condition of further military assistance -- with a requirement that functioning courts of law be established. They can even be military tribunals at first, if necessary. But an accounting of the disappeared must begin, and those responsible must be put on trial.

It could be argued that such strict requirements as a condition of our aid smack of Yankee arrogance. I believe that the brave people struggling for democracy within El Salvador would reply, if they dared, that what is arrogant is to send our dollars and lend America's name to a government that permits security police to murder its own citizens.

I was struck recently by the irony when a high administration official confided privately that he hoped Napolean Duarte would win the presidential elections in El Salvador newly scheduled for December. For Napolean Duarte was the winner of the presidential election in 1972 and Guillermo Ungo, a Social Democrat who is now head of the guerrillas' political front, was his successful vice presidential running mate. By all accounts, including the state department's, the military stole the election, arrested and tortured Duarte, and forced him into exile.

A decade ago, the United States looked the other way and reaffirmed military aid immediately to El Salvador. If, instead, it had defended democracy and human rights, we might be debating today not how to hold on desperately to what is left of the democratic center in El Salvador, or how to stop the guerrillas' latest advance. We might be debating how to spread the Salvadoran example of democracy to the rest of the hemisphere.

The lesson for the United States is clear. In Latin America and around the world, we musttfight for what we believe in if we hope to defeat what we oppose.