An Arizona sheriff said yesterday that the "coyotes" who led a party of Salvadorans into the desert may have bungled their smuggling attempt, rather than intentionallly abandoning the aliens as reported earlier.

One of the 13 people found dead in the desert and two of the survivors may have been coyotes, or smugglers of illegal aliens, said Pima County Sheriff Jack Garchhow.

Immigration and State Department officials said yesterday that the Arizona tragedy is unusual only because so many people perished. Coyotes, they say, often mistreat their powerless cargo or subject them to their own incompetence, as in this case.

Many incidents of maltreatment go unreported because the victims fear deportation if they go to police. In Arizona, the three aliens who staggered out of the desert Friday night were afraid to admit police that they were part of a larger group, thus dooming 13 others, local law enforcement officials said.

The Arizona desert situation is far from unique. In the past three years, there has been no shortage of horror stories involving smugglers:

Last summer, five Haitian children and a young woman drowned after being forced off a boat at gunpoint by smugglers.

In March 1979, a smuggler abandoned a woman in the desert who tired after four hours on foot, but returned 20 minutes later to rape her and knock her unconscious. The woman was found, the smuggler was not.

In February 1979, Laredo, Tex., firemen found two charred bodies, identified as illegal immigrants, in the trunk of a burned car. When the fire broke out, the smugglers had fled, leaving the immigrants to die in the trunk.

In February 1978, a Chicago-based smuggler locked 17 illegals into a small van for 30 hours. When they arrived in Chicago, three men were frostbitten.

"In the wintertime, they're left to freeze to death. In the summer, they suffocate in vans aqnd trunks," said Humberto Moreno, director of the Antismuggling Office in the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

His office, with a $9 million budget and a staff of 252, has made some progress against smuggling. Last year it apprehended 18,000 smugglers and 211,000 illegal immigrants who admitted that smugglers had brought them into the country.