Clothing and textile exports from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador - Central America's "jaguars" - are stealing more of the U.S. market from Asia, said Chris Schons, promotions assistant at Guatemala's Chamber for Exporters of Non-Traditional Products.

In 1987, the three jaguars - a nickname first used by the Guatemalan government - captured 0.5 percent of the U.S. market for apparel. By October 1991, they had grabbed 2.6 percent of the market."This is a spectacular increase of 500 percent in less than five years," Mr. Schons said.

In 1987, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and China, the biggest U.S. suppliers, exported 111 times more than the jaguars in clothing and textiles. Now, they export only 19 times more, Mr. Schons said.

Also in 1987, the four Asian countries exported $10 billion in clothing and textiles to the United States, capturing 56 percent of the U.S. market. But between January and October 1991, the countries exported $9.2 billion, which reduced their share to 49 percent.

Caribbean Basin countries, which include Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, between January and October 1991 exported $2.56 billion worth of textiles and apparel to the United States, increasing their market share to 13.6 percent from 6 percent in 1987.

Central America's rapid increase in clothing and textile exports is largely the result of rising wage rates in the Pacific Rim and a quicker turnaround time in Central America. The export boom will mean much needed jobs in the region.

In Guatemala, for example, the number of jobs in the assembly, or maquila industry, could jump from 60,000 today to 202,000 by the end of the decade, Mr. Schons said. Exports from the tax-free industrial park for maquila industries in Costa Rica grew a record 33 percent in 1991, creating 7,500 jobs.

In El Salvador, the value of most non-traditional exports, like textiles, has shot up, while the value of traditional exports has dropped more than 50 percent in the last 10 years, said Silvia Cuellar Sicilia, executive director of the Chamber for Exporters of El Salvador.

"I think our best non-traditional product right now is textiles," she said. Textiles made up 11 percent of the country's total exports last year and chemicals made up 9 percent.

Non-traditional exports, other than textiles and clothing, also increased considerably throughout Central America in 1991. Handicraft exports from Guatemala, for example, rose by 86 percent; metal product exports grew by over 100 percent; and vegetable exports grew by 41 percent.

"I think these exports will continue to grow, because it's cheaper here and there's the quick response here," said Gerald Lamberty, adviser to Guatemala's Chamber for Exporters of Non-Traditional Products.

"Rather than making an order six months in advance to a company in Japan, (U.S. business people) want to make an order only two weeks in advance and get their product," he said.