It is a dead body by the roadside that first announces the city limits of this somnolent provincial capital in northern El Salvador.

Seemingly dressed in his Sunday best -- a still clean white shirt, dark slacks -- the man lies flat on his back on the gravel shoulder of the two-lane blacktop from San Salvador, 60 miles southwest of here.

The dead man's shoes are missing and his stocking feet look somehow incongruous. Someone has placed a small tree branch on his face to keep the buzzing flies at bay, but it does not hide the ugly black bullet hole in his forehead.

The roadside is still and hot under the noonday sun. Nearby, brilliant yellow butterflies dart amid the fiery red flowers of a bougainvillea. In the hazy blue sky, two gray vultures circle, floating on a cushion of muggy air, eyeing their potential prey.

Fifty feet down the road there is another body. But it twitches occasionally and turns out to be nothing more than a drunk, stunned into insensibility by El Salvador's potent rum.

Although it is the middle of the day, no one seems to be around, or to care about the two bodies -- one dead, one drunk -- in the road.

A little farther into town, there is the sound of scraping in a cemetery of shoulder-high white tombs. Three men are wordlessly digging a grave.

In El Salvador, where death has become a way of life, it is a scene that with only slight variations of setting is seen every day, everywhere.

No one really knows just how many people have been killed or have disappeared since the old military government of Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero was overthrown 18 months ago by a group of colonels promising reform. The conservative count is 10,000 dead, that of the now underground human rights commission, 16,000. Whatever the precise numbers, they are almost beyond belief, certainly beyond comprehension.

Here in Chalatenago, a town whose flaking plaster walls, quiet narrow streets, and palm-studded central plaza look lika a set from an old south-of-the-border Western it has been pretty much a normal day. Of the town's 7,000 inhabitant, only five persons had been assassinated the previous night -- their bodies left in the streets for their relatives to relatives to recover when the nightly curfew lifted at dawn.

Some no doubt were killed by rightist death squads that roam the streets after dark seeking out suspected leftists. Others no doubt were themselves rightists, or orejas (ears), the name given to collaborators of the Army, who had been slain by leftists. Others might be women raped by soldiers, then disposed of by a bullet to the head, or simply the victims of personal feuds.

They are all victims of the new matanza, or butchery, the name given to the massacres of 1932, El Salvador's last populist revolt against the nation's harsh military chieftains. It is that earlier matanza, where anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 Salvadorans were slaughtered, that gave birth to the "culture of violence" that rules today.

Familiarity with the death and violence of this land does not lessen the eeriness a visitor feels as he drives slowly through Chalatenango's streets, noting the bullet-pocked walls and the graffiti that proclaims muerte a la tirania -- death to tyranny.

A stranger's progress through the town, less than 10 miles south of Honduras, is followed by silent stares from shaded shop doorways. In the sun-baked plaza a dozen soldiers, armed with West German-made semiautomatic rifles and strings of grenades, watch warily from under the veranda of their well-guarded, and turreted, garrison.

In the bell tower of the plaza's weathered white-stucco cathedral, two more soldiers look down, their automatic weapons slung from their shoulders. The church's green doors are locked, the local priest having long ago fled to the capital under threats to his life from rightists who suspected him -- of sympathizing with the leftist guerrillas in the jagged tropical hills that rise behind the town.

A teen-aged girl, her small brother holding onto her skirt, materializes suddenly out of the dark shadows of a shop. Showing little emotion, she tells the stranger that her sister Wilma del Carmen Herrera Crespin, a 21-year-old student, disappeared at noon the previous day. This morning her body was found with a bullet in her head on the street outside her school.

The young girl presses a picture of her dead sister into the stranger's hand. It shows a very pretty young woman with lovely wide, dark eyes and dark hair. The girl asks only for help in publicizing her sister's death so that her family, which is scattered -- her mother living in Honduras -- might know of Wilma's death.

Inside the garrison, the commander is a U.S.-trained major in his thirties whose paratrooper and marksman badges are pinned to the breat of his neat olive uniform. In the last 15 days, he says, the intensity of guerrilla activity here has inexplicably fallen off.

In January, when the guerrillas launched their ill-fated "final offensive," they occupied Chalatenango. But after several days of trying to overrun the well-defended garrison, they fell back into the hills.

Since then, they have limited their activities to sneaking up to the edge of town at night and attacking -- often in fire fights that last up to three hours -- isolated military guard posts. When the Army mounts patrols to try to flush them out of the hills, the major says, the rebels simply fade away in classic guerrilla fashion.

The major makes it clear his role is more one of static defense of the town and keeping its surrounding roads open by day than searching out and destroying the guerrillas. Some of them, he admits, have been holding a nearby village, San Antonio los Ranchos, for weeks without his soldiers moving against them.

"We have to be very careful to keep our casualties down," the major says. "We have to move slowly and carefully so we do not suffer many losses. That is the system. Those are our orders."

It is clear from what he says that the war against the guerrillas is only stalemated. For all the government's talk of mopping-up operations and offensives against the guerrillas, it appears only to be holding its own, moving against the rebels only when necessary, making occasional forays into the rugged countryside merely to keep them on the move.

The picture of the way that emerges here, in what is one of the two provinces of greatest guerrilla activity and concentration, is far from the optimistic pronoucements of repeated government successes emanating from the colonels and the U.S. diplomats whom they brief in the capitol.

The smiling major, who like most military officers here refuses to give his name so as to protect his family from reprisals, said he was not particularly reassured by the recently slowdown in guerrilla activity.

"They are probably preparing for something bigger," he said. "Who knows?"

"I'll tell you one thing," the major said in conclusion. "When I retire from the Army, I'm going to jump in a deep hole and never come out."

Outside in the square, a company of several hundred soldiers is marching slowly back to the garrison, moving in two long columns.Their guns are slung across their chests, their uniforms are neat and clean, and there is little dust on their new combat boots. They make an impressive-looking force, but the evidence indicates that their patrol went no farther than the town's paved streets.

On the road out of town, rushing to beat the darkness that would turn over the countryside once again to the killer squads of the night, there is time only to note that the drunk who had groveled along the road is gone.

The body with the bullet in the forehead is still there. The grave that was being dug was for someone else. The only thing to be thankful for is that the vultures that circled so hungrily have been sidetracked by a dead dog, 300 yards away.