LABERINTO, Peru (AP) _ Driven by poverty and a savage guerrilla war, thousands of highland Indian children are joining a gold rush in the Madre de Dios jungle in southeastern Peru.

They are lured by shady recruiters who promise high wages. Once here, the children discover too late they are trapped in a ''green hell'' of dense jungle and backbreaking labor.

Often death is the only escape. Many children die from jungle diseases. Others are murdered, and their bloated bodies sometimes are seen floating down the region's rivers.

Children who do survive the gold camps often are dismissed without pay and left stranded in the remote region.

''When I tried to collect after 90 days, my boss fired me without giving me a cent,'' said 14-year-old Felix Fuertes Diaz. ''He said I had stolen a shovel.''

Conditions in the camps along the Madre de Dios river and its tributaries illustrate the depths of indifference to exploitation in this impoverished country, where child labor is common.

There was barely a stir in Lima in August when a newspaper reported the existence of a mass grave in the jungle containing the bodies of 50 ''slave children.''

The report proved false. But exploitation of children in the gold camps is very real, according to priests, human rights activists, miners and boatmen who travel the jungle's tributaries.

''Human life is worthless here,'' said the Rev. Xavier Arbex, a Roman Catholic priest from Switzerland who lives in the gold mining town of Mazuko. ''From the moment the children are loaded onto the trucks they are treated like cattle.''

Arbex, who has lived in the region for 15 years, says that every day at least 10 children, usually 12 to 16 years old, arrive in the Madre de Dios area in trucks from Cuzco. Many are fleeing an 11-year-old leftist insurgency centered in the Andes that has taken more than 23,000 lives.

The children come with the glitter of gold in their eyes. But settlements with names like ''Laberinto'' (Labyrinth) and ''Infierno'' (Hell) foretell what awaits them.

Camp bosses work the children 12 hours a day. Girls as young as 12 or 13 seek jobs as cooks, and before long many are raped and forced into prostitution.

The Madre de Dios has lured gold seekers for more than two decades. An estimated 25,000 miners pan for gold in the jungle 550 miles southeast of Lima. In the past five years increasing numbers of children have joined their ranks.

Government officials say that in the most inaccessible areas as many as 50 percent of the workers are boys under 18.

Traveling two hours up river recently from Laberinto, a reporter passed half a dozen camps where workers were panning for gold at the water's edge. Each camp contained boys no more than 14 pushing wheelbarrows in the boiling sun and washing gravel through sluices.

A worker, man or boy, is expected to haul a minimum of 100 loads of gravel a day. Gold camp bosses offer $2.50 to $3.75 for a day's work. They seldom pay up.

''Children are very sought-after as workers,'' Arbex said. ''They don't complain. They keep their mouths shut. They work hard because they want to be like grown-ups. And they're paid very little, sometimes nothing at all.''

The youngsters are encouraged to buy on credit at the company store normally found in each camp. Once they become indebted, they can't quit until they work off their debts.

''They lock them up at night, like slaves,'' Arbex said.

Usually, though, no force is needed to keep the children from escaping.

''The youngsters stay on in hopes they'll eventually be paid,'' said Cesar Terrazas, a human rights worker in the departmental capital of Puerto Maldonado, three hours down river from here.

''Also, the areas are very isolated,'' he said. ''They would have to walk four or five hours in the jungle to get away and they're afraid of the jungle.''

The children exist on a diet of boiled plantain and yucca roots. Many grow weak and are struck down by intestinal parasites, malaria, yellow fever or leprosy.

But there are no doctors in the remote camps and, if a child dies, his body is buried quickly, and just as quickly forgotten.

Felix, the teen-ager who was fired without pay, told his story in Laberinto, a riverside village of shacks and dirt streets where miners stock up on supplies, sell their gold and get falling-down drunk.

The youngster was trying to pick up odd jobs cleaning bars to pay for the trip home to his mountain village, three days travel by truck.

The fare cost nearly $20. But Felix was having trouble just earning enough for one meal a day in Laberinto, where prices are double those in Lima, the capital.

Local authorities ignore the abuses in the gold camps.

''The problem is that the justice of the peace and the police are tied to the local power groups, which are in league with the mine owners,'' said Victor Raul Solorio, a Labor Ministry inspector in Puerto Maldonado.

In remote jungle areas, the camp operator's word is law. And that often means the power of life or death over his workers.

The gold camps on the upper reaches of the Rio Colorado, 12 hours by boat from Labertino, are said to be populated by escaped convicts.

Police and human rights activists warned a reporter against traveling there to investigate reports that mine owners have killed rebellious young workers.

''It's true,'' said Lucio Bazan, overseer at the Virgen Rosario claim up river from Laberinto. ''Since there is no law in the jungle, sometimes they kill the youngsters so they don't have to pay them.''

Arbex said he also had heard of mine owners killing children.

''You see the bodies of children, of youngsters, in the rivers,'' he said.

Bodies floating in the region's rivers apparently are a common sight.

''Boats always seem to capsize on the return journey to Puerto Maldonado, after the peons have completed their three-month stint and before they have been paid,'' said Thomas Moore, an American anthropologist who has worked for years in the region.

Most of the gold miners are from the arid highlands and cannot swim.

An hour up-river from Laberinto, an Associated Press reporter saw a body floating in the broad, chocolate-colored Madre de Dios. Two black vultures squatted on the bloated chest.

''He must be one of the three who drowned last week when their boat overturned,'' the reporter's boatman said.

When the boatman returned to Laberinto, he did not bother to notify authorities.