At a time when Guatemala's military rulers, politicians and businessmen are congratulating themselves on diminished violations of human rights here, a glance at the capital's daily newspapers is a disconcerting experience.

Day after day, El Grafico and La Prensa Libre carry reports of the latest dead and missing as if they were traffic fatalities on a holiday weekend. The message in the newspapers is that the improvement in human rights under the 15-month reign of Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores is relative.

Saturday's morning press recorded 11 new mystery killings.

El Grafico told of three bodies, including that of a 15-year-old boy, found chopped to death with machetes along a road in El Quiche province in the northern highlands. All three had their hands tied behind their backs.

The daily said the body of Cesar Augusto Martinez, 60, described simply as a "political activist" because a union card was in his pocket, was found decomposing after neighbors had seen buzzards circling and informed authorities. The cause of death could not be established immediately, according to the local magistrate, because dogs had mangled the corpse.

La Prensa Libre had more detailed accounts of at least seven other killings around the country. As usual, corpses appeared bearing signs of strangulation, knife wounds, gunshots or in some cases all three.

Official explanations vary between accusations against "subversives" -- leftist guerrillas who have opposed the government for almost a decade -- or simply "common criminals" whose activities have picked up because of unemployment. An economic crisis has left about 47 percent of the work force unemployed or underemployed.

In cases where witnesses to the killings or the abductions by armed men have identified members of the state security forces, the government has sought to belittle the importance of such claims. Mejia Victores said at a meeting with relatives of persons who have disappeared that "often the subversives put on government uniforms to throw the blame on us."

Such claims do not explain why the majority of those killed or kidnaped are associated with the nation's decimated union movement, its universities, peasant organizations, or, as one editor in the capital put it, "anyone that dares to think in Marxist terms."

In recent months, death squads have killed or kidnaped dozens of students and killed three professors at the University of San Carlos' economics department. The faculty dean, Vitalino Giron Coronado, was gunned down in his car Oct. 27 as he was driving to the funeral of one of his professors, who had been killed in a similar fashion two days earlier.

The case can be made that there are now fewer killings of this character than there were a few years ago.

The compilers of the "grimgrams" that the U.S. Embassy sends to Washington to record Guatemala's violence point out that in 1981, at the height of terror under then president Romeo Lucas Garcia, an average of 483 persons a month were being killed for political reasons. According to the U.S. Embassy, the number has dropped to 90 a month this year, 79 having been killed in November.

"If you want to judge the issue on numbers alone, then yes, there has been an improvement," said a Guatemalan political leader. "But the truth is not that much has changed beyond numbers. The institutional violence that has become so much a part of our political and social life continues -- it is perhaps only being more selective today than it was three years ago."