GUATEMALA CITY, JULY 22 -- A young girl was raped and killed in a lower middle-class neighborhood of this capital in April, another victim of the city's wave of violent crime. When her grieving father appeared on television, he expressed the frustration of a nation.

"If this is democracy, we don't want it!" he cried. "We need Rios Montt!"

Polls indicate Guatemala, which joined the Latin American march toward elected civilian governments in 1986, is losing its faith in democracy. And the beneficiary may well be a leading symbol of the nation's brutal, authoritarian past: retired army general Efrain Rios Montt.

Eight years ago, Rios Montt grabbed a share of power in a military coup, promptly deposed two fellow officers in the military junta and ruled Guatemala with an iron fist for 14 months.

There were secret military courts that dispensed quick justice to hundreds of "criminals"; a counterinsurgency campaign against leftist guerrillas that left thousands dead; a "rifles and beans" program to control peasants in the highlands; and televised Sunday sermons by the fundamentalist general, who preached traditional family values.

In the process, the general got crime off the streets.

Thrown out of office in another coup in 1983, Rios Montt shrank from public view. But after four years of ineffective, often corrupt civilian democracy, the 64-year-old Rios Montt is back. This time he is taking aim at national elections in November.

Guatemala, he says, once again needs his iron fist.

"There's corruption at every level, and it's given rise to economic degeneration," Rios Montt said in an interview. "Democracy doesn't mean live and let live. The challenge is to make people comply with the law."

The general has promised to shoot rapists and drug traffickers, deal harshly with corrupt public officials and launch a campaign to "rescue moral values." "Because of free love," he has noted, "the United States is in bankruptcy." His messianic message, delivered in a growling voice, has been resoundingly popular, playing on a widely felt sentiment that Guatemala's experiment with civilian democracy has been a flop.

The symbol of that democracy is President Vinicio Cerezo, who took office in 1986 amid cheers from his countrymen. These days, overwhelmed by the nation's troubles, he is the subject of street-corner snickers for his well-publicized womanizing.

Violent crime dominates the headlines and evening news. The economy has gone from sluggish to sickly. And the 30-year-old guerrilla war, nearly snuffed out in the scorched-earth policy pursued by Rios Montt and the other military rulers of the early 1980s, has revived.

Beneath the country's troubles is an apparent erosion of government authority and a perception that democracy is too weak, too corrupt and too indecisive to tackle the toughest national challenges.

"Democracy is just a word," said a salesman at a downtown electronics store. "It doesn't mean much to me. What's more important is an honest government, and Rios Montt can make an honest government."

Polls illustrate Guatemala's growing dismay with democracy. Before Cerezo took office, four of five Guatemalans surveyed said democracy was the best form of government. Today, scarcely a third say so -- about the same number who prefer military rule.

Rios Montt has not registered as a candidate, yet already he is at or near the top in the polls. If the general withstands constitutional challenges to his candidacy, many political analysts consider him a shoo-in to win the election.

Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and several South American countries all moved away from authoritarian regimes in the last decade, opting for centrist democratic leaders with no ties to the military. Rios Montt's resurrection could mark a break from that regional trend.

"They've given democracy four years and it hasn't turned out perfect, so now there's this impulse to go back to what they know," said a diplomat here. "And what they know is the caudillo" -- the charismatic strongman.

The prospect of a return by Rios Montt also alarms human rights groups. He led the country at the height of a counterinsurgency campaign that was so bloody that it earned a place in the region's political lexicon: The "Guatemalan solution" is now taken to mean a strategy of wholesale massacres to wipe out guerrilla insurgencies.

Under Rios Montt's leadership, rights groups say, the army razed hundreds of rural villages suspected of harboring communist subversives. Untold number of peasants were killed, they charge, and thousands of refugees fled north across the Mexican border.

Asked once if he had a scorched-earth policy, Rios Montt replied, "It's not a scorched-earth policy, it's a scorched-communist policy." Anne Manuel of the Americas Watch human rights group said, "It produced utter devastation and was probably responsible for several thousand deaths."

In the capital, the rights groups acknowledge, Rios Montt put an end to death-squad murders and disappearances aimed at prominent lawyers, judges, union activists and leftist leaders. But in place of the urban terror campaign, Rios Montt set up special military courts with secret proceedings.

The general today has no apologies for the way he conducted the war or the way he ran the justice system. He points out that no constitution was in effect at the time of his rule, and insists he put an end to the worst abuses of his predecessor, Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia. Some diplomats, including U.S. envoys, agree.

"Guatemala was occupied by subversion," Rios Montt snapped, repeating the sentence for emphasis. "Understand? We received the reins of an occupied nation. With ethical principles, with moral principles, we started to talk with the people and take away support from the subversion. That's when the great defeat happened: taking away civilian support from subversion."

As for the defendants tried by the secret tribunals, he said: "There was a de facto state, not a state of rights. . . . The government could have thrown their assassinated bodies onto the garbage heap. What's important is that they were sentenced to death and didn't appear dead in the streets."

Of the 700 to 800 prisoners who appeared before the secret courts, he said, just 15 faced the firing squad.

Due process does not appear to be a principal concern of the Guatemalans surveyed. Many remember Rios Montt as a strong leader who got crime off the streets and demanded honesty of bureaucrats. In his presidency, Guatemalans frequently note, civil servants wore badges that proclaimed, "I don't lie. I don't steal. I don't abuse."

And while some listeners say his televised Sunday sermons grated, the message of marital fidelity and moral renewal may have a more receptive audience after four years of Cerezo's widely discussed extramarital hijinx.

The chief obstacle standing between Rios Montt and the presidency is Guatemala's 1985 constitution, which restored democratic rule. Article 186 bans candidates who have taken part in coups, as well as "ministers of a religion or a sect."

The general would appear disqualified on both counts. He came to power in a March 1982 coup, and for more than a decade has been a leader of El Verbo, or The Word, a fundamentalist evangelical sect.

"The constitution was written specifically to prevent people like Rios Montt from running," said Enrique de Leon, a Social Democratic legislator.

But Rios Montt is in no mood to bow out without a fight. In an hour-long interview, a copy of the constitution never left his hand. It is, he insisted, his best legal weapon. He noted that the document was written three years after he left office and said it cannot be applied retroactively to him.

He cited another provision of the constitution giving primacy to international human rights accords that Guatemala has signed, and he said those accords recognize a fundamental right to participate in politics.

So far, his arguments do not seem to be making headway. The Court of Constitutionality issued a non-binding opinion against him, and the authors of the constitution, in a special session convened to consider the question, also said he was ineligible to run.

Still, no final decision can be made until Rios Montt formally files as a candidate, which may not occur until September. In the meantime, the question of his candidacy has dominated the electoral process, in part because the other candidates are colorless by comparison.

Rios Montt has suggested that if the court rules against him, he may not obey. The thinly veiled threat is that he will take his supporters to the streets. "I've made a study of the constitution, and I know I'm within the law," he said. "Period."

Some Catholics, already alarmed by the rapid expansion of fundamentalism in Guatemala, fear the general would provide even more of a boost to the 35 percent Protestant minority. Some Protestant leaders, already worried about a Catholic backlash, fear a bloodbath if he runs. Some senior army officers, including those who ousted him in the 1983 coup, fear retribution if he takes office again.

Nonetheless, the general is undeterred. "I already proved that I could raise up a nation from ethical and moral bankrupcy," he said. "The iron fist is knowing the concept and the principles of carrying out justice and making people conform with the law.

"It's not being a soldier or a tyrant or a caudillo, but understanding that the challenge is to compel people to comply with the law. If not, there won't be peaceful coexistence."