In the chill just before dawn six months ago, a group of soldiers drove through the sagging wooden gates of this government cooperative farm carrying guns and a list.

One by one, they rousted the peasants from their shacks. Eight of those on the list, including the cooperative's president, were summarily shot. Then the soldiers left. Within a few hours, so had virtually all the workers.

Since the agrarian reform began last March, it has been plagued by inefficient management, shortage of money and technical expertise and excess of ambition. But it is El Salvador's chronic violence that is the major threat.

"How are you going to get peasants to go and work the fields when they don't know from one minute to the next whether they are going to be killed?" asked a frustrated administrator. "How are you going to make something like this work in the middle of a civil war?"

But, at least so far, it appears this radical experiment supported by the United States -- some critics say perpetrated by it -- is working. It was designed to avert a leftist revolution by reforming the near feudalistic economic system and preempting the guerrillas. A year ago, an uprising seemed imminent. It has yet to happen.

Some of the landowners displaced by the first phase of the reform have retreated to Miami or Guatemala. Salvadoran officials charge that as few there are funding right-wing death squads and encouraging conservative members of the military to sabatage the reforms with any means at their disposal, including murder.

Others of what was called "the oligarchy" have retired from agriculture to concentrate on managing business holdings. With the economy already weakened by perhaps $1 billion in capital flight and organizational difficulties afflicting the reform, many displaced landowners felt it would simply be a matter of time until the reform collapsed of its own weight.

Despite dire predictions, however, agricultural production has declined substantially only in cotton, which is down from an average 300,000 bales to 161,000 this year. Production of basic grains is up 20 percent, according to official figures.

Given the violence of the last 12 months, that would seem to indicate considerable success. But the reform is still based only partly on reality and extensively on promises. As violence continues and the promises are not kept, those who designed the experiment are afraid the laboratory could blow up.

The newly appointed president of El Salvador has vowed to bring under control the terrorism and strong-arm tactics used by some government troops, and he has guaranteed that existing reforms will be continued. But the impulse to carry through the original sweeping program -- the most extensive ever undertaken in Central America -- is fading in the face of declining U.S. support and the Salvadoran government's increasing desire to compromise with the conservatives.

In this country about the size of Massachusetts, with about 5 million people, or 550 to the square mile, 60 percent of the population is rural. Until the reform, El Salvador had one of the lowest ratios of landowners to rural population in the world. Of approximately 400,000 families supported directly by agriculture, 300,000 owned no land at all. Most of the rest owned only small, often infertile plots.

The land reform was to alleviate this situation in three phases. The first was the takeover by the government of all farms of more than 1,235 acres. These were turned into cooperatives run by whoever the peasants wanted to run them. The second stage would work the same way, but affect all properties larger than 247 acres. The third would give remaining sharecroppers and tenants the land they worked, up to 17 acres.

Only the first stage has been carried out, affecting about 315 farms. Stage two has now been postponed. It would affect several government and military officials and a much larger proportion of the small middle class than phase one -- about 1,800 current landowners. The administrative difficulties and cost are looking increasingly prohibitive. The U.S. Congress has ruled out further aid to the land reform program.

An influential U.S. diplomat said recently he hoped phase two is never begun, and according to both U.S. and Salvadoran officials it probably will not be.

But stage three, the "land to the tiller" program designed by American professor Roy Prosterman along the lines of a project attempted in Vietnam, has become a potentially explosive half-reality.

The government announced in April that the former tenants now own their land. About 150,000 families thought they benefited. Eight moths later, no titles have been delivered. The government says it is in the process of setting up a bureaucracy to handle that aspect and looking for money to pay for it.

Peasants and those who work with them are concerned that the government may not move until after the harvest ends next month. At that point it will be extremely hard for the former tenants to prove what land was theirs.

If titles are not handed out soon, the peasants whom the government had hoped to win over could easily be driven into the arms of the left. With its ranks swelled, Prosterman and others fear, the Salvadoran guerrilla movement could finally mount a major insurrection.

Meanwhile, violence is intense in some parts of the countryside. Many political disputes are now inextricably tied up with personal vendettas and apolitical crime.

Where the old managers were thrown out, the ex-overseers have a tendency to return with a vengeance. They are often joined by conservative military men who fear that peasant cooperatives are wide open to guerrilla organizers.

According to one land reform official, the government has left about a dozen farms in the region of Tecoluca without any credits. "The government thinks there are too many subversives there," said the official. "I'm afraid now there are going to be more subversives than there were before."

The guerrillas are burning crops and blowing up the vast factory-like coffee processing plants whenever and wherever they get the chance in attempts to destroy the economy and dismantle the reforms.

More than 200 people connected with agrarian reform projects have been killed on a single farm near the town of Aguilares, and at least five other cooperatives in that region have been abondoned.

To the extent that the reforms have succeeded it appears that the determination, and desperation, of the Salvadoran peasants is a key factor. Even after repeated attacks, they eventually come back to the land.

They are back at El Penon.

"One doesn't forget the killing, said Jose Antonio Cruz, 27, treasurer of the cooperative. "We can't work in peace. There's fear of the Army, of everything, because they shoot from all sides. Nobody investigates anything. They just take you away and kill you, or kill you right on the spot."

A local man connected with the nominally disbanded paramilitary group known as Orden regularly comes by and threatens various members of the cooperative, whom he is apparently convinced are communists. But the local military suggested soon after the June killings that the cooperative should pay $180 a month for better protection. Another $50 goes to the commander in the nearby town of Sonsonate, ostensibly to defray the gasoline expenses the military incurs in patrolling the area. The peasants pay regularly and since June only one of them has been dragged from his home and killed.

"The people here are still afraid, but they have to come back," said Cruz. "There's no place else to go. Nothing to eat. The people are always in need."

For people who have lived the life of a Salvadoran peasant, and most Salvadorans have, the reform as it is -- even with the violence -- is better than what they had before.

This farm has always been poor. When the government took the land and it was turned over to the peasants to run they had no infrastructure. Their farming methods are crude. Corn is harvested with machetes, loaded into gunny sacks and transported to storage sites in oxcarts.

Yet they are producing more. The previous owner paid little attention to the enterprise and invested nothing in it. With government help, fertilizer has been bought. Workers pay closer attention to their labor. With the added blessing of good weather, the cooperative expects to produce nearly twice as much corn as it did last year.

Most of the farm's 325 people live like the Asencio family, whose seven members sleep in a hunt made of sticks forced into the mud to support a thatched roof. Cooking is done on a chimneyless hearth inside. Beds are straw pallets or hammocks. There is no electricity and no one has shoes.

The living conditions are unchanged, but Santo Asencio, 16, explains, "Before we were totally dominated by the owner. "Now the pay is higher, up from $1 a day to nearly $3, and the day is only eight hours long.

It is a truism among Salvadoran conservatives that the peasants would rather work than fight. But they have never had land, or thought they had it, to fight for before. Few people here believe they will let it be taken back without a struggle.