Carlos was one of six boys from his village in the mountains of northwest Guatemala who left their homes together a few years ago to attend a boarding school for promising Indian children.

Today Carlos, 19, is continuing his studies in Guatemala City, but his five firends have gone back to the mountains of Quiche Province to join the leftist guerrillas.

"They told me they might as well go to the mountains," Carlos said. "They were afraid that if they tried to help their people have a better life they would be dragged out of their homes in the middle of the night."

The fears were not imaginary. In the decade between 1966 and 1976 more than 20,000 people were murdered in political violence here, according to Amnesty International.

At least 2,000 more have died since May 1978, according to a recent report from the prestigious London-based human rights group.

Although Amnesty did not directly accuse the government of President Romeo Lucas Garcia of complicity in the murders, it noted in the report that most of the victims were allied with perceived opponents of the military government and "in no case of which Amnesty is aware has a killing been fully investigated and its perpetrators brought to justice."

In Carlos' village of Chajul during the past three years, several Indians have been taken from their homes by armed men thought to be secret police. Three members of one family, all connected with the opposition Christian Democratic Party, have never reappeared and are presumed dead.

One of Carlos' uncles disappeared under similar circumstances, he said. Another uncle was kidnaped and beaten on three separate occasions; a third uncle has been threatened and goes into hiding whenever government soldiers come to Chajul.

"In the boarding school in Chichicastenango we were taught to seek peace without using arms," Carlos said. "But I can understand why my friends want to fight. There seems to be no other way."

Carlos, a serious and polite young man who supports the Christian Democratic Party, said he disagrees with his friends' decision because "the Guerrilla Army of the Poor and the Rebel Armed Forces, the two main guerrilla groups, have much of communism." He hopes to return to his village next year, but fears that anyone who "demands justice and a salary worthy of his work" will be killed.

Carlos' dilemma illustrates the essential problem facing Guatemala. Following a leftist revolution in Nicaragua and violent political conflict in El Salvador, leaders of this key Central American country acknowledge a need for social and economic reforms.

After prodding from the United States, which hopes to avoid more revolutions in the strategic Caribbean Basin, Garcia's government is undertaking some modest programs to improve the lives of the large majority of the population who live in poverty.

Three years after U.S. military aid was suspended because of human rights violations here, the U.S. Embassy has suggested a resumption of some training and sales of spare parts for military helicopters in an effort to increase U.S. influence with the ruling military.

But the government's efforts at political and economic reforms are consistently blocked by political violence by left and right. Relatively small bands of leftist guerrillas have operated in the country off and on since the mid-60s, harassing government troops and killing or holding for ransom rich Guatemalans accused of exploiting the poor.

In reaction to the guerrilla activity, thousands of peasants, labor leaders and left-of-center politicians have been killed, apparently by rightist groups connected to the police and military. It was this violence on which Amnesty and other human rights groups have focused.

The government and the powerful business community, already nervous about the impact of El Salvado and Nicaragua here, react angrily to such publicity about political violence.

Gonzalo Asturias, spokesman for an organization of important businessmen called Friends of the Country, said the figures cited by Amnesty were too high because the organization counted many unsolved killings without demonstrating that they were political. He said the government was trying to control the violence, but "a developing country cannot change an entire structure in one day."

Another Guatemalan professional man who has kept a record of political violence said he believes the Amnesty report is accurate. He, like most people who spoke critically of the situation here, asked that his name not be published.

"We have no political prisoners here," he said. "Here they just get killed."

He and many others said they believe the policy and army are involved in kidnapings, torture and killings. They also criticized the government for not cracking down on rightist paramilitary groups.

"The government is not a referee without a whistle watching a game of death," said a liberal politician close to the government. "No government can watch groups killing each other off and remain neutral."

President Lucas, he concluded, "has the whistle and does not want to use it."

A high government official who also asked that his name not be published disagreed. "Every government does good things and bad things," he said. "Can you think of any country without a single policeman who commits abuses? We try to avoid violence but the government is not omnipotent. We cannot be everywhere."

A government crackdown on rightist paramilitary groups would bring a strong political reaction. The largest delegation in Guatemala's 61-member congress is composed of deputies from the National Liberation Movement (MLN), a strong rightist party led by former vice president Mario Sandoval Alarcon. The MLN controlled the government until last year, when Garcia formed a centrist coalition that soon collapsed under the weight of the military.

Sandoval, who brags that his party was "the only one in America to support" deposed Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, has called on "all the political and civic forces of the country to support the army in its fight against guerrilla subversion." Sitting down to begin an interview, he took an automatic pistol out of his hip pocket and put it on a chair beside him. "You'll have to excuse me," he said, "but we have to be armed. They killed all the leaders of my party. I am the only survivor."

Hanging on the wall of Sandoval's office next to a photograph of him with Paraguayan President Gen. Alfredo Stroessner is a large map of Guatemala with red arrows showing the movement of guerrilla groups and a large blue arrow along the Motagua river valley in the eastern part of the country labeled "National Liberation Movement Forces."

Several liberal politicians and neutral observers said Sandoval's party is indeed strong in eastern Guatemala and is probably responsible for much of the violence there against the left.

Sandoval defined the situation in Guatemala as "a struggle between those of the left who want to take power following an international line and the forces of legality who want to bring order to the country . . ."

"What happened in El Salvado and Nicaragua is not going to happen here," he said.

An example of the difficulties of carrying out reforms is the experience of Vice President Francisco villagran Kramer, a tall, courtly liberal intellectual who can with Sen. Lucas in hope of creating some "political and social flexibility" in Guatemalan politics through the ill-fated coalition. In an interview at his heavily guarded home, Villagran said he had agreed to run with Lucas in 1978 in return for a promise that certain social and political changes would be made. None has been carried out, he said.

One change was the legalization of new political parties -- two on the right and two on the left.

The leftist parties were registered, "but their leaders were killed," he said with an ironic laugh. Alberto Fuentes Mohr of the Democratic Socialist Party was machine-gunned in a residential area near the U.S. embassy on Jan. 25, 1979, and Manuel Colom Argueta of the United Front of the Revolution was shot to death on a downtown street March 22.

Villagran said he also was promised freedom for unions to organize, the strengthening of Indian communities and guarantees for their land, a more "nationalist" policy on exploitation of natural resources and a system of "popular participation" in government.

At first, he said, some unions were allowed to organize, "then they began to kill union leaders." He said large land owners still encroach on Indians' land, and no new laws have been passed on natural resources or participation in politics.

Villagran, who has been frozen out of all policy making, has said several times that he plans to resign, but has not yet done so. He apparently hopes to have some influence on regional politics since he has good contacts throughout Central America.

Although Villagran said he plans to leave the country after resigning, his name has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 1982.

Diplomatic sources said the military has decided that the next president of Guatemala will be a civilian, and a number of candidates have begun to campaign informally.

"If the next president is not a civilian, there will be a civil war," said a Christain Democratic politician. "The people are fed up with military rule."