Carlos Garcia Herrera, one of 50 political prisoners serving time in a grim penitentiary here, considers himself a freedom fighter.

Many would quarrel with Garcia Herrera's description of himself.

Garcia Herrera has been jailed by the government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet on charges of killing military officers and others. Supporters of Pinochet, especially within the military, say that the existence of political "assassins" like Garcia Herrera justifies a continued hard line against dissent.

But to growing numbers of unemployed, frustrated youths in the slums surrounding Santiago, Garcia Herrera represents something of a role model.

These conflicting views of the 32-year-old former electronics repairman provide a glimpse into the clandestine resistance to Pinochet's 12-year-old military regime.

Garcia Herrera recently agreed to be interviewed during visiting hours at a sprawling prison complex in southern Santiago that houses more than 2,000 prisoners.

"What more can I lose?" he asked, a smile curling beneath his bushy mustache. "After four death sentences, what more can they do to me?"

Garcia Herrera is a committed Marxist, a militant in Chile's small Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), one of two armed leftist groups that have vowed to overthrow Pinochet by leading a popular insurrection.

When read against Pinochet's hard-line rhetoric, Garcia Herrera's words form a peculiar dialectic, warning that the far left is determined to press on with its violent struggle until a socialist "people's democracy" is established here.

He scoffed at the church-backed National Accord, a recent initiative endorsed by 11 political parties and designed to bring a gradual return to democratic rule, as an attempt at "bourgeois" democracy.

According to Garcia Herrera, Pinochet's overthrow and the installation of a civilian government might not be enough to persuade his fellow party members to lay down their arms. He said such ambiguity would grow if the moderate Christian Democrats, the country's largest party, came to power.

"The Christian Democrats represent the same monopoly capital that has impoverished the country," he said, adding that the MIR would decide to end its violent campaign "depending on whether the government takes popular measures."

Despite their ideological differences, Garcia Herrera said the MIR respect the Christian Democrats "for their organized base among the masses," contrasting them with other Chilean politicians who, he said, "represent only themselves."

That respect, Garcia Herrera claimed, was not shared by Pinochet, who, he said, "understands the language of force."

Garcia Herrera backed the claims of many Pinochet supporters that the increasingly common looting of stores during political protests was organized by armed leftist groups.

"At first it was spontaneous, but now our comrades have organized the masses, so they know what to do," he said. "You can't blame people who are dying of hunger for participating."

Blackouts caused by attacks on electrical installations, a favorite MIR tactic sometimes accompanied by looting sprees, create "great joy among the masses, because it causes panic within the regime," he said.

Garcia Herrera, a muscular man with close-cropped hair and a vaguely military bearing, refused to talk about the killings for which he was convicted. Captured with his wife and infant daughter in an ambush four years ago by Army intelligence agents, Garcia Herrera was originally sentenced to death for the murders of four military men and three civilians. One was the 1980 assassination of the head of the Army intelligence school, Col. Roger Vergara.

Garcia Herrera's sentence was not carried out and is under appeal.

"When I was sentenced, Army officials asked me if the prosecuting attorney's life was in danger if I was executed," he said. "I told them it surely would be."

Garcia Herrera spoke matter-of-factly about having participated in attacking police stations and blowing up power pylons, in what he called a "war of attrition" against the Pinochet government.

Garcia Herrera said he and his wife were tortured to obtain his signed confession, and he added that he broke down after the military tortured his 14-month-old daughter in another room -- a charge a spokesman for the Vicariate of Solidarity, a human rights organization run by the Roman Catholic Church, called "unlikely."

"Whether I killed a carabinero militarized policeman or not, I would have said 'yes,' " Garcia Herrera said.

Garcia Herrera said he first was imprisoned in August 1973 as a sailor, when he and a group of Navy colleagues plotted to resist a coup against elected Socialist President Salvador Allende, who was overthrown a month later in a military uprising led by Pinochet. Garcia Herrera said he was not involved in politics then, but that the coup "just seemed wrong."

Imprisoned for three years by the military, the young Santiago native turned to the MIR shortly after his first year in jail.

"I got my political education in prison," he said. "That's the best place to educate oneself politically. We in the MIR think of the prisons as schools. Many of our leaders here are economists, philosophers, that sort of thing. Our relations with the outside world are fluid."

In October, eight persons were killed and more than 100 wounded in a MIR-led jailbreak attempt. One of the dead was MIR leader Victor Zuniga.

Founded at the University of Concepcion in southern Chile in 1965, the MIR advocated armed violence to bring "all power to the workers" during the 1964-1970 administration of Christian Democratic president Eduardo Frei. When Allende took office in November 1970, he pardoned MIR militants imprisoned or in hiding, describing them as "idealistic youths." By 1972, the MIR boasted 20,000 members, including worker and student fronts.

Following the 1973 coup, the MIR embarked on armed resistance to the Pinochet government.

Until recently, when the Communist-backed Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front emerged, the MIR had provided the only significant armed resistance to the government with a series of dramatic bank robberies, attacks on power stations and occasional murders of police or other officials.

Political observers here say that recently the MIR has suffered a string of important losses, some apparently the result of government infiltration. As the MIR has declined, the Communists' Rodriguez front has appeared to grow stronger.

Asked whether the MIR ever had tried to kill Pinochet, Garcia Herrera said that although he personally would do so, there was some feeling among the MIR leadership that such a move would be counterproductive.

"Our fight is against an entire leadership, not just against the person of Pinochet," he said.