"Some say this is a patriarch system," said Don Raul Salaverria, 73, as he looked over some of his 4,000 acres and 1,000 peasants who live on them here in western El Salvador.

"I accept that."

Salaverria is part of El Salvador's old order, the people who have in effect run this country for most of the past century -- the oligarchy they are often called. He is one of the people the current U.S.-backed government says it is trying to strip of power, one of the people the extreme left would kill or kidnap if they got the opportunity.

Salaverria does not talk about oligarchy but about the old days of what he calls democracy "a la Salvadorena," which, as far as he was concerned, afforded the people the freedom they needed.

As often as not he portrays himself as the victim of past governments. It was they, he says, who kept him from improving the lot of his peasants. He especially portrays himself as a victim of this regime.

About 140 of the largest farms in El Salvador have been taken by the government thus far in an effort to implement sweeping land reforms, to undercut the demands of the left and to break the economic and political power of the right.

Salaverria is the only landowner who openly has resisted the seizure of his property by troops and land reform officials.

In a brief exchange of gunfire on March 7, the day after thr reforms began, one soldier and one of Salaverria's people were wounded. Subsequently, according to the government, 1,500 weapons, including automatic rifles, were found on the property.

Salaverria is still in the big house. He invites reporters to sit with him on the veranda looking out on his tropical garden past coconut and palm trees that his wife planted when they were married 50 years ago.

One government official described the Salaverria family as "not only powerful but ruthless, the kind of people that don't let anything stand in their way, the kind that could easily be behind the right-wing violence."

Salaverria ran as an unsuccessful vice presidential candidate in 1972 with the founder of El Salvador's paramilitary group known as ORDEN.

But, smiling and cordial as he sits in his rocking chair wearing everyday work clothes, he says that coercion has never been his way. "Mutual understanding is what brings peace in the world," he tells reporters.

Government officials are now supposed to be running his farm and the huge coffee processing plant on it. The peasants are supposed to own it as a collective. But the question remains, almost a month after the land was seized, of just who is in charge.

"We don't know whose land it is now. You might say no man's land," mused Salaverria as he sipped a cup drawn from the 2,000 tons of coffee his farm produced last year.

The hacienda, known as "La Labor," has been in the hands of Salaverria's family for 117 years. According to his accountants, it earns him a profit of about $146,000 a year. His workers, he says, earn about $30 a week during the harvest season. Some of them and their children are covered with sores. Most are barefoot.

The only reason Salaverria has not left, he says, is because of his closeness to the peasants. "I was dishonored -- no, I was not dishonored because I fought . . . I would have gone right after this sad affair, but I think the people don't want me to. They have asked me to stay."

A land reform official on the farm said that might be possible. "The peasants have no idea what's going on," he said.

A worker, born on the farm more than 40 years ago, was asked to whom it belongs now. "The patron," he said. That is, Salaverria.

What the U.S.-backed government of El Salvador is trying to do is break such longstanding patterns of fealty. They exist not only on the farm, but in the armed forces, many of whose members are accustomed, in effect, to taking orders from the rich.

"What we have to do," said one U.S. official advocating military aid to the current government, "is wean the military off the test of the oligarchy and onto ours."

Few Salvadorans appear to have any confidence that will happen.Although a substantial number of young military officers strongly advocate reforms and express bitter resentment of the country's rich elite, there are still persistent reports of security forces killing politically active peasants, as well as others.

A corporal in one of the several uniformed security forces was asked by reporters last week to describe a confrontation that he took part in at a farm occupied by a militant peasant group last December.

"It was a massacre," the corporal said matter-of-factly. Who was killed?" "Ultraleftists." Were they armed? "Yes, they had one machine gun, shotguns, pistols." How many soldiers were killed? "None." Wounded? "None." More than 20 of the militants died.

"Right now," said Salaverria, "a big battle is being fought. I believe a showdown will come soon. When that happens it will be either the communists or the noncommunists.

Salaverria clearly thinks that it will be noncommunists like himself who ultimately will win. As he sees it, God is on his side. He has reportedly told several people that the proof lies in the fact that when a soldier tried to shoot him on March 7, the gun jammed. When somebody took aim at liberal antioligarch Archbishop Oscar A. Romero two weeks later, Salaverria reportedly pointed out, that gun worked.