Is El Salvador's human rights record getting any better? On the answer to this question may well hang millions of dollars of United States aid, let alone hundreds of civilian lives.
Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, the Salvadorean government asserts that the number of human rights abuses here is dropping - that the count of unsolved murders, abductions, and disappearances is going down. The United States Embassy here provides the Reagan administration with similar conclusions.
But nongovernment gatherers of these grim statistics flatly disagree. And few people here claim that the embassy figures are necessarily more accurate than tallies being compiled by these other groups.
The human rights conditions that these statistics allegedly measure will be spotlighted in the next few weeks as Congress debates certification of rights progress in El Salvador and new military and economic aid.
What makes the difference is who collects the information - and how. Ironically, the Salvadorean government's Human Rights Commission, which claims to have the most expansive information network, comes up with the lowest number of human rights abuses.
Of the four main groups that record civilian abductions, disappearances, and murders, the US Embassy and the official Human Rights Commission have noted a decrease in human rights violations.
The remaining two groups, the Human Rights Commission of the Roman Catholic archbishop's office and Socorro Juridico Cristiano (Christian Legal Assistance, another Roman Catholic organization), have not recorded a falling off of human rights abuses.
The US Embassy, according to officials involved in the tabulation process, relies solely on newspaper announcements and information provided by the Salva-dorean military for its figures.
The embassy recorded 1,677 abductions and murders for 1983. But even the embassy does not vouch for the accuracy of its figures.
''We do not attempt to take personal testimony from relatives or question the information given to us by the Armed Forces,'' a US official says. ''If the Army says a mass grave is filled with guerrillas killed in combat, we record the information as it is given to us.''
The Salvadorean government's Human Rights Commission, according to its executive secretary, Dr. Benjamin Cestoni, draws its information from the armed forces, the press, personal testimony, and several government ministries.
According to a report released by the commission, which was formed last year, there were 1,002 civilian deaths or disappearances in 1983. This is the lowest total of the numbers released by the four groups.
The archbishop's office, widely considered to be the most thorough and reputable of the groups recording human rights abuses, gathers most of its information from personal testimony. Its office is usually overcrowded with people waiting to record the disappearance or murder of a friend or family member.
The archbishop's office claims the number of human rights violations in 1983 remained roughly the same as during 1982. It recorded 5,142 abductions, disappearances, and murders last year. In 1982 the office recorded 5,399.
The Socorro Juridico Cristiano, which also gathers its data from personal testimony, recorded 5,670 abductions, disappearances, and murders in 1983. ''The embassy draws its figures from a censored press and the Salvadorean military,'' says a high-ranking official in the archbishop's office. ''Periodically, El Mundo, the one newspaper in the country that permits the publication of paid advertisements by families looking for disappeared relatives , often has to suspend these advertisements because of death threats against the editorial staff. During this past year there were several weeks when no advertisements were printed. Can the US Embassy seriously use these sources of information, the military and the censored press, to claim a decrease in human rights violations?''
The church official also charges that many poor people cannot afford to pay for ads in El Mundo.
Privately some US officials concur that the archbishop's office attempts a more ambitious process of data-gathering. ''I have not launched an investigation ,'' says one US official, ''but I have no reason to doubt the archbishop's computations.''
Dr. Cestoni of the government's Human Rights Commission is highly critical of the archbishop's figures.
''The archbishop's office lists dead guerrillas killed in combat as dead civilians,'' he says. ''The church allows the communists to inflate the figures of deaths and disappearances as part of the disinformation campaign against our country. Any leftist can go to the archbishop's office and say they lost a relative. Why doesn't the church demand evidence?''
Dr. Cestoni speculates that many of those that are registered as disappeared in fact have left the country or joined the guerrillas.
Roman Catholic Church leaders contend they are part of the only institution Salvadoreans trust in a country where complaints about human rights violations can have dangerous consequences.
''Those that suffer from the endemic violence that has become part of daily life here,'' says this church official, ''remember an Archbishop Oscar Romero, who cried out for them when the rest of the world was silent. They remember how he suffered and how he died and they know that we cannot abandon the call he set before us. For this reason people come to us, rather than going anywhere else. If your President does not want to listen to the voice of the people here, this is his decision.'' HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS IN EL SALVADOR as recorded by the following groups
SALVADOREAN ROMAN CATHOLIC SOCORRO US HUMAN RIGHTS ARCHBISHOP'S JURIDICO EMBASSY COMMISSION OFFICE CHRISTANOm 1983 1,677 1,002** 5,142 5,670 1982 2,722 5,399 5,967 1981 5,331 NA NA 1980 2,173* NA NA Figures tally numbers of abductions, disappearances, and murders NA Nor available * October, Novermber, December alone ** Only 1 year's statistics because organization is a year old