U.S. fruit company Chiquita Brands International said it would plead guilty to one count of doing business with a violent Colombian paramilitary group the U.S. government lists as a terrorist organization. In Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports, experts say the practice of paying "protection" money has been widespread.

Chiquita Brands International said Wednesday it agreed to pay a fine of $25 million to settle U.S. Justice Department charges it paid "protection money" to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a violent right-wing para-military group. The company also promised to work with U.S. investigators in the matter.

Prosecutors allege Chiquita paid more than $1.7 million over a seven-year period ending in 2004. They say the money went to leaders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.

Chiquita said the payments were made because of concern over the safety of its employees in the banana-growing regions of Colombia.

University of Miami professor Bruce Bagley says Chiquita is not the only foreign company to be accused of making such payments.

"Many of the paramilitaries have revealed that they have received payments from various corporations, some Colombian, some American, European and others to provide certain kinds of services, very much like the mafia provides protection services," he said.

In Colombia, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said he approved of the fine, for what he called extortion payments. He said he hoped other firms under investigation by U.S. authorities receive similar penalties.

The revelations about Chiquita come as Colombia's government is demobilizing some 30,000 paramilitary fighters under a peace deal. The agreement calls for leaders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia to confess to crimes committed over decades of fighting with Marxist guerrillas who have been waging an anti-government insurgency since the 1960s.

The confessions threaten to open new wounds in the conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people. Professor Bagley says the process also may lead to a spate of lawsuits against companies and individuals tied to the violence.

"The proceedings that are currently under way have really opened the lid of this bubbling pot, and I think we can expect a number of civil suits to be brought by the victims of these atrocities and other crimes," he said.

Relatives of victims in the Colombian conflict have criticized the peace agreement for being too lenient with paramilitary leaders, who are blamed for massive human rights violations and links to drug trafficking. Colombian officials say the program is necessary to move the nation forward.